Spanning thousands of years and numerous cultures, the history of saffron could easily fill a book. We may not be able to give you a full history, but we’ll try to cover the basics and dig a little deeper into one of its lesser-known but widely respected uses – in tea.
A Rare and Precious Spice
One of the first things you’ll note about saffron is that it is astonishingly expensive. Saffron is made from the red threads (stigmas) of the crocus flower. Each flower produces exactly three threads, which means it takes 4,500 flowers to make a single ounce of saffron. Each thread must be picked by hand, adding to the cost of labor and time.
The good news is that only a few threads of saffron are needed to flavor an entire dish, so that a small amount can last a long time. Yet today’s steep price tag isn’t a new development; if anything, history shows that saffron is more affordable today than it has ever been.
A Rich and Colorful History
It’s impossible to say how long humans have used saffron, as evidence of its use predates written record. Its history is easily beyond 3500 years long, making it even older than tea! The earliest surviving record we have of its use are ancient Minoan frescoes showing saffron blossoms being picked by young women and, humorously, by trained monkeys.
Cultures across Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean all favored saffron and used it for a variety of purposes. Saffron could be used to flavor food, release a pleasing aroma, or create a vibrant yellow dye. (Buddhist monks today are famously identified by their saffron yellow robes, worn by the monks for over 2000 years.) It was often adopted as potpourri in public places, given as gifts of gratitude, and became part of sacred rituals in a number of religions.
Most cultures also seemed to believe it had medicinal properties. In Egypt, it was used for digestive maladies, while the Persians and Indians thought it useful against melancholy. The Minoans, Sumerians and Egyptians all believed it could staunch bleeding.
Yet its most powerful reputation as medicine (for good or ill) was as an aphrodisiac. Cleopatra herself was known to use it to enhance amorous encounters. Persian cuisine was often seasoned with saffron, and its reputation as a drugging aphrodisiac became so exaggerated that travelers visiting Persian towns were warned against consuming saffron-laced foods.
Saffron in the Tea World
Like most herbal teas, saffron tea was first created as an herbal medicine. The threads would be steeped in water, then the drink was consumed in hopes of treating everything from stomach ailments to infections to melancholy. It was discovered then that saffron best releases its aromatic and flavorful properties when steeped in hot liquid, a process often used in saffron recipes today. This also accounts for the use of saffron baths throughout history.
Today, a saffron tea is an excellent way for those unfamiliar with saffron to experience it for the first time. Our saffron & green tea blend features quality green tea enhanced with saffron threads, a thrilling blend of flavors for both new tasters and long-time saffron lovers. If you’d like to experience saffron tea for yourself, you can pick it up here.
What did you find most interesting about saffron’s history? What would you like to see us dig into next? Let us know in the comments below!