From antiquity to modern times the history of saffron is full of applications in food, drink, and traditional herbal medicine: from Africa and Asia to Europe and the Americas the brilliant red threads were—and are—prized in baking, curries, and liquor. It coloured textiles and other items and often helped confer the social standing of political elites and religious adepts. Ancient and medieval peoples believed saffron could be used to treat a wide range of ailments, from stomach upsets to the plague.
Saffron features in European, North African, and Asian cuisines. Its aroma is described by taste experts as resembling that of honey, with woody, hay-like, and earthy notes; according to another such assessment, it tastes of hay, but only with bitter hints. Because it imparts a luminous yellow-orange hue, it is used worldwide in everything from cheeses, confectioneries, and liquors to baked goods, curries, meat dishes, and soups. In past eras, many dishes called for prohibitively copious amounts—hardly for taste, but to parade their wealth.
Because of its high cost saffron was often replaced by or diluted with safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) or turmeric (Curcuma longa) in cuisine. Both mimic saffron's colour well, but have distinctive flavours. Saffron is used in the confectionery and liquor industries; this is its most common use in Italy. Chartreuse, izarra, and strega are types of alcoholic beverages that rely on saffron to provide a flourish of colour and flavour. The savvy often crumble and pre-soak saffron threads for several minutes prior to adding them to their dishes. They may toss threads into water or sherry and leave them to soak for approximately ten minutes. This process extracts the threads' colour and flavour into the liquid phase; powdered saffron does not require this step. The soaking solution is then added to the hot cooking dish, allowing even colour and flavour distribution, which is critical in preparing baked goods or thick sauces.
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Threads are a popular condiment for rice in Spain and Iran, India and Pakistan, and other countries. Two examples of such saffron rice is the zarzuela fish-seafood stew and paella valenciana, a piquant rice-meat preparation. It is essential in making the French bouillabaisse, which is a spicy fish stew from Marseilles, and the Italian risotto alla milanese. The saffron bun has Swedish and Cornish variants and in Swedish is known as lussekatt (literally "Lucy cat", after Saint Lucy) or lussebulle. The latter is a rich yeast dough bun that is enhanced with saffron, along with cinnamon or nutmeg and currants. They are typically eaten during Advent, and especially on Saint Lucy's Day. In England, the saffron "revel buns" were traditionally baked for anniversary feasts (revels) or for church dedications. In the West of Cornwall, large saffron "tea treat buns" signify Methodist Sunday School outings and activities.
Moroccans use saffron in their tajine-prepared dishes, including kefta (meatballs with tomato), mqualli (a citron-chicken dish), and mrouzia (succulent lamb dressed with plums and almonds). Saffron is key in the chermoula herb mixture that flavours many Moroccan dishes. Uzbeks use it in a special rice-based offering known as "wedding plov" (cf. pilaf). Saffron is also essential in chelow kabab, the Iranian national dish. The use of saffron in south Indian cuisine is perhaps best characterised by the eponymous Kesari bhath - a semolina based dessert from Karnataka. South Asian cuisines also use saffron in biryanis, which are spicy rice-vegetable dishes. (An example is the Pakki variety of Hyderabadi biryani.) Saffron spices subcontinental beef and chicken entrees and goes into many sweets, particularly in Muslim and Rajasthani fare. Modern technology has added another delicacy to the list: saffron ice cream. Regional milk-based sweets feature it, among them gulab jamun, kulfi, double ka meetha, and "saffron lassi"; the last is a sweet yogurt-based Jodhpuri drink that is culturally symbolic.
Saffron's folkloric uses as an herbal medicine are legendary and legion. It was used for its carminative (suppressing cramps and flatulence) and emmenagogic (enhancing pelvic blood flow) properties. Medieval Europeans used it to treat respiratory disorders—coughs and colds, scarlet fever, smallpox, cancer, hypoxia, and asthma. Other targets were: blood disorders, insomnia, paralysis, heart diseases, stomach upsets, gout, chronic uterine haemorrhage, dysmorrhea, amenorrhea, infant colic, and eye disorders. For the ancient Persians and Egyptians saffron was an aphrodisiac, a general-use antidote against poisoning, a digestive stimulant, and a tonic for dysentery and measles. European practitioners of the archaic and quixotic "Doctrine of Signatures" took its yellowish hue as a sign of its putative curative properties against jaundice.
Colouring of textiles
Despite its high cost, saffron has been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India. It is in the long run an unstable colouring agent; the imparted vibrant orange-yellow hue quickly fades to a pale and creamy yellow. Even in minute amounts, the saffron stamens yield a luminous yellow-orange; increasing the applied saffron concentration will give fabric of increasingly rich shades of red. Clothing dyed with saffron was traditionally reserved for the noble classes, implying that saffron played a ritualised and status-keying role. It was originally responsible for the vermilion-, ochre-, and saffron-hued robes and mantles worn by Buddhist and Hindu monks. In medieval Ireland and Scotland, well-to-do monks wore a long linen undershirt known as a léine, which was traditionally dyed with saffron. In histology the hematoxylin-phloxine-saffron (HPS) stain and Movat's pentachrome stain are used as a tissue stain to make biological structures more visible under a microscope. Saffron stains collagen yellow.
There have been many attempts to replace saffron with a cheaper dye. Saffron's usual substitutes in food—turmeric and safflower, among others—yield a garishly bright yellow that could hardly be confused with that of saffron. Saffron's main colourant is the flavonoid crocin; it has been discovered in the less tediously harvested—and hence less costly—gardenia fruit. Research in China is ongoing.
In Europe saffron threads were a key component of an aromatic oil known as crocinum, which comprised such motley ingredients as alkanet, dragon's blood (for colour), and wine (again for colour). Crocinum was applied as a perfume to hair. Another preparation involved mixing saffron with wine to produce a viscous yellow spray; it was copiously applied in sudoriferously sunny Roman amphitheatres—as an air freshener.
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