Saffron stigmas with crocus flower

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Saffron is a spice cultivated primarily in modern-day Iran and Spain. Loved the world over for its uniquely layered flavor profile described by epicureans as floral, sweet, pungent, metallic, earthy, and grassy; saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and the signature ingredient of food dishes from Spanish paella to Persian tahchin to Kashmiri rice.

Saffron comes from the crocus flower, of which there are at least 75 varieties. If you live in a cold climate, you’ve likely found petite pink, purple, and white crocus blossoms popping up through the last remnants of snow, a dependable first sign of spring. But there’s only one crocus variety that yields saffron, and that is Crocus sativus, or autumn crocus, explains North Carolina State Extension Gardener. Unlike the ornamental garden varieties, each violet-colored saffron crocus flower has three vivid crimson-red stigmas or pistils in the center. These are the thin threads of saffron that, when dried, flavor international cuisine and dye fabrics in bright hues of yellow and orange.

Harvesting saffron from the Crocus sativus plant is a tricky business. For starters, per Gardening Know How, each bulb yields but one flower, and they only come into bloom for a three-week period in the fall. Furthermore, each delicate stigma must be harvested by hand. If you’re wondering just how many flowers it takes to get a single kilogram (roughly 2 lbs.) of saffron, the BBC says 150,000! This extensive labor is the real reason saffron is so expensive.

Saffron in the Bronze Age Minoan Civilization

Fresco from Knossos palace

The first known use of saffron was as a paint smeared onto the walls of cave dwellings in the Mediterranean, and the first image of a saffron crocus flower appeared on a hand-turned ceramic pot around 4,000 years ago (via ABAC Holland B.V.). In fresco paintings, the spice adorned the walls of the Greek palace of Knossos, which the Minoans would have painted during the Bronze Age (2000 – 1500 B.C.).

Ancient Minoan society occupied the islands of Crete and Thera (now Santorini). One fresco, the "Saffron Gatherers," shows pickers harvesting crocus flowers and collecting the stigmas in baskets, which would then be offered to the gods and goddesses. Saffron was not only depicted as an offering to the divine; the exquisite spice was a major driver of economy dating back to 1650 B.C. when it was first deemed valuable due to the care needed to harvest it.

For centuries, the Minoans revered saffron religiously and used it to paint vessels, art, and clothes, as well as for tinted lipstick and ear ornamentation. The World History Encyclopedia notes that it remains unclear to archaeologists why the Minoan civilization fell into ruin by 1200 B.C. Whether it was a massive weather event like a volcano, tsunami, earthquake, or competition from the nearby Mycenaean civilization that ultimately took down the Minoans, nothing could slow down the onward trajectory of the world’s most prized spice.

From the Greco-Roman period to Cleopatra’s Egypt

Saffron in chalise cup

Throughout the Greco-Roman period, saffron was prevalent in both mythology and medicine. Regarding mythology, one famous and unfortunate incident involved Hermes accidentally hitting a young Crocus in the head with a disc during a game of catch. As Crocus lay dying, the story describes how three drops of his blood stained the stigmas of a nearby flower, which became his namesake (via Greek-Islands.us).

By 400 B.C., the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, was writing about saffron as part of a cure for ulcers (courtesy of the MIT Internet Classics Archive). Erasistratus, Diokles, Dioscorides, and other Greek physicians employed saffron as a treatment for eye infections, ear and toothaches, and cataracts. Meanwhile, over in Rome, some believed it was effective against wine-induced hangovers, so they mixed it into wine as a preventative measure, per FX Medicine. Unfortunately, new research proves there’s no cure for a hangover, but we applaud their creativity and wishful thinking.

Cleopatra, who became the Queen of Egypt in 51 B.C., is credited with first exalting saffron as a beauty ritual and perfume. Per National Geographic, she allegedly bathed in mare’s milk infused with the spice, especially before engaging in physical intimacy. Zaffrus extrapolates that saffron’s vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants would have aided in keeping the beauty’s skin smooth, bright, and vital. Since she’s considered one of the most beautiful women in the history of time, it’s nice to think it may have worked.

Saffron in ancient Persia, India, and China

Persian chicken tahchin with saffron

Saffron cultivation in ancient Persia dates back to the 10th century B.C. (via Chemeurope). Archaeologists have discovered the royal spice threaded through Persian rugs and funeral shrouds. Like the Greeks, Persians offered it as a gift to the gods, and they trusted its medicinal benefits, using saffron-infused water to cool down after a long day in the blistering heat.

According to Eater, Persian rulers took saffron to nearby India in their conquest of Kashmir, where it would become a mainstay in Kashmiri cooking and a vital cash crop for the local economy. Persian cuisine has highlighted saffron since its beginnings, and modern-day Iran is the country that produces most of the world’s saffron supply. To bring a taste of the cuisine to your table, spiced chicken tahchin (pictured above) is a casserole classic, or try this hearty Persian noodle soup recipe. In the mood for a delicious Indian dish? Go for a Hyderabadi biryani seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves in addition to saffron.

It’s unclear exactly when or how saffron arrived in China. Per The Recipes Project, it could have been in the year 647 A.D. via a gift to the court of the Tang Dynasty from northern India. It also could have come from Persia via Mongol invaders, suggests Chemeurope. In China, the spice was immediately embraced medicinally and as an offering to the Buddha. From a culinary perspective, saffron was primarily used as a fragrant herbal additive to wine.

Saffron in La Mancha, Spain

Spanish saffron

Saffron likely made its way from North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century A.D., where it took up another permanent residence in Don Quixote’s neighborhood of La Mancha, Spain, says Sourced Journeys. The region’s propensity for cold winters followed by hot and humid summers lends the perfect climate for the finicky crocus flower. To this day, La Mancha saffron — called Azafrán in Spanish — is considered among the highest quality food commodities in the world. Only the saffron of this specific region is classified as Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO), the same designation reserved for products such as sparkling wine from the Champagne Region of France.

Cellar Tours notes that, as of 2017, one kilo (roughly 2 lbs.) of Azafrán de La Mancha can run upwards of $3,000. But don’t worry; a little goes a long way, and most recipes call for just a small amount. To really sink into the wonder of saffron in Spanish cooking, paella is a must for your menu. Try a classic seafood paella recipe to get started. However, if shellfish are a no-go for you, try this version with chicken instead. Cellar Tours recommends grinding saffron threads with a mortar and pestle before cooking to bring out its flavor’s full potency.

The Red Gold of Iran pays the rent in Cambridge

Saffron weighed against coins

Already well-known for its distinctive flavor profile and the flaxen tint it bestowed upon foods and fabrics alike, 14th century Britons went so far as to believe this miracle spice could hinder an on-coming plague (via The Guardian). It’s no wonder saffron had garnered itself the nickname of ‘red gold’ by the time it arrived in medieval England.

Just over a dozen miles from Cambridge University, in a town Henry VIII would eventually rename Saffron Walden, a Crocus sativus farmstead grew into a large agricultural production. Farms sprung up between the site and the colleges, and, for the first time, local farmers had a cash crop to take to market completely separate from the food they grew for sustenance.

The spice became a daily staple for Cambridge’s elite, and its uses didn’t stop at food flavoring or as a medicinal powerhouse. Saffron got to the point of being so highly regarded it became an acceptable form of currency. According to The Guardian, college masters, in particular, were so taken with the spice that they preferred the locals to supply it as rent payment instead of money, and the colleges themselves often repaid debts to each other with it.

Per the Saffron Walden Museum, the saffron from area farms was also important for dying local wool. The first dye factory was in business by the year 1359 and most yellow cloths from medieval times were likely dyed with crocus stigmas.

Saffron in Medieval British food

Medieval pork and saffron gruel

Oh, how the wealthy loved saffron, and so it showed up on the plates of the upper class mixed into many recipes during the Middle Ages. The flavoring was found in starters, soups, entrées, and desserts. According to the British Museum’s culinary blog on how to cook a medieval feast, saffron was front and center at royal banquets, especially during Easter and Christmas.

With instructions like "Do therto salt; whan it is colde, do hit in a vessel; take vyneger & powdour & safroun & do therto," recipes read like poetry. A meal fit for a king might start with mixed pickles followed by cabbage chowder. To serve something similar to your own guests for the holidays, try making some of your favorite pickles and pair them with an old-fashioned cabbage soup.

For a simple main course of "yopened" haddock (most likely meaning cut open and deboned), ground saffron makes an appearance for the upper class alongside white pepper and oil for frying; whereas the less financially solvent would skip both expensive spice and oil, settling instead for butter.

Finally, for dessert, a recipe for creamed custard tart required chefs to beat egg yolks with cream, milk, and sugar, and then "coloure it with Safroun" (all recipes courtesy of the British Museum and "The Medieval Cookbook" by Maggie Black). This modern-day strawberry rhubarb custard is another type of shortcrust tart that may benefit from a few strands of red gold.

Saffron in 14th-Century French cooking

Medieval banquet in France

A boat ride away across the English Channel in France, saffron was simultaneously celebrated in medieval French cooking. On the banquet table, a saffron-based yellow sauce called poivre jaunet accompanied main dishes, such as grilled fish fillets (via Getty). Chefs soaked breadcrumbs in broth with saffron, ginger, and garlic, then brought the mixture to a boil and added vinegar.

Interestingly, while the fork was invented back in ancient Egypt, it took time for the utensil to catch on. Even French aristocrats ate with their fingers until at least the 1400s because, until that time, choosing a metal implement over their god-given fingers was considered an affront to the Christian god, notes Leite’s Culinaria. Due to the lack of forks on tables, cooks in the Middle Ages often used pastry dough to create rissoles. These small confections, similar to turnovers, were less messy when eaten by hand, and feasters might have enjoyed them between courses. Rissole recipes called for steeped saffron water for the dough and the ricotta cheese filling. Commonly added fruits of the time included raisins, figs, and apples (recipes courtesy of Getty).

Preparing the saffron water required for rissoles is a task unto itself. If you try it at home or mix it with orange juice for this saffron olive oil cake recipe, remember that the crocus stigma is a powerful dye. Use porcelain or glass bowls, lest you wish for a permanently yellow-stained collection of plastic storage containers.

The Pennsylvania Dutch bring saffron to America

Pennsylvania Dutch farmer with horses

There’s a narrow swath of Pennsylvania that many of us think of as Amish country, yet culinary historians are more likely to call it the Yellow Belt. That’s because, in 1700s colonial America, small-scale Pennsylvania Dutch farmers traveled between their homesteads in Lancaster County and Philadelphia in order to trade goods in support of their simple lives, says USA Today 10 Best. There they met Spaniards at the international markets and returned home with Crocus sativus bulbs. When planted, the bulbs quickly learned to love the Pennsylvania clay soil and humid climate just as much as their distant relatives had across the pond in Cambridge and farther east throughout Spain.

Saveur notes that early 18th century Amish and Mennonite farmers would go on to cultivate so much saffron that they came to be called the Yellow Dutch in jest. By the time the country found itself declaring its independence from Great Britain, the spice that turned everything it touched a golden hue was literally worth its weight in gold.

Pennsylvania Dutch farmers have long been known to add saffron to just about anything that passes through the kitchen. USA Today 10 Best notes that their chicken pot pie soup recipes demand saffron-tinted homemade noodles as a primary ingredient. The Historic Foodie adds that, throughout the 1700 and 1800s, every household in Lancaster grew their own saffron; a stew that lacked its flavoring and distinctive tint was regarded as substandard at best.

Saffron as medicine

Saffron essential oil

Saffron, the little-flower-that-could is said to provide an array of medicinal benefits. Alzheimer’s patients have shown cognitive function improvement after taking encapsulated doses of the spice, and it has the potential to promote weight loss by curbing the appetite, reports Medical News Today.

The high levels of antioxidants called crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal are why saffron is so valuable for medicinal purposes. Two of the best-studied benefits of saffron extract are mood improvement and oxidative stress reduction. The latter is particularly important because it plays a significant role in the onset of over 100 different diseases, claims the National Library of Medicine. Furthermore, crocin and crocetin compounds have been shown to improve health within the gastrointestinal, immune, endocrine, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems of the human body.

It’s interesting to note (via Oxford Academic) that way back in 1650 B.C., the ancient Minoans were using saffron for contraceptive purposes and gynecological health. This helped to make it a powerful symbol of femininity, which was further depicted in the artwork of the time. Medical News Today expands on this, saying women who either take saffron in pill form or simply inhale its fragrance for 20 minutes have reported reduced symptoms of premenstrual syndrome. The spice is also thought to increase libido. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the red stigmas of the flower harvested for saffron are the female reproductive organs of the plant, per Gardening Know How.

Saffron as dye

Saffron dyed fabrics in India

Unadulterated saffron is rich red in color, but when it’s used to dye fabrics, the resulting hue can be anywhere from a muted mustard to electric orange. According to Pigments Through the Ages, the crocus stigmas are so saturating they can still be detected even when the dye solution has been diluted 200,000 times. Saffron-dyed fabrics have been found wrapped around ancient Egyptian mummies, and the Roman goddess Venus is said to have worn a robe tinted yellow from the spice.

Since saffron has always been difficult and time consuming to harvest and, therefore, only available to the elite for food and medicinal uses, the same went for dyed cloth. For centuries, wearing the yellow color was a clear sign of societal advantage, wealth, and power. Britannica adds that it was also made the official color of monks’ robes after the death of the Buddha.

However, many things fall from grace, and what was initially a celebrated hue worn by Chinese emperors, Buddhist monks, and European royalty alike eventually gained a very different reputation, says Pigments Through the Ages. Due mostly to Christianity in the Middle Ages, yellow went from being the color of love to a representation of lust; from there, it could only slip downhill towards anger, jealousy, hate, and contempt. Though saffron-dyed fabrics may have fallen out of style with the upper class over time, the adoration of the spice’s flavoring in cuisine has remained constant throughout history.