The word ‘spice’ is not only the term applied to aromatic plant products used in flavouring it is also suggestive of something exciting, of something exotic, of that little bit of something extra. It is perhaps surprising therefore that about the only thing that most British people know about the world’s most expensive spice is that it used to be grown in Saffron Walden in Essex. In fact apart from a few place names, history appears to have recorded very little else about the British’s connection with this most unusual and valuable crop.
The spice saffron is the dried stigmas of an autumn flowering mauve crocus. Only the few millimetres long receptive part of the female reproductive organ are utilised, although it is sometimes incorrectly said to be derived from the anthers, the male portion of the flower that produces pollen. The origins of saffron are ancient and obscure, but it is thought to be originated from Asia Minor or the eastern Mediterranean. The saffron crocus is unknown as a wild species. Unlike the majority of life on earth whose cells contain two sets of chromosomes (one from each parent) the cells of saffron contain three. Although plants are much more tolerant than are animals of extra chromosomes, this extra set of chromosomes results in sterility and an inability to produce seeds. Saffron reproduces entirely by the vegetative splitting of its corms. This extra set of chromosomes may indicate that saffron was originally produced by the hybridisation of two different species of crocus. Alternatively, species that tend to reproduce more frequently by vegetation means such as bulbs or corms, than by producing seeds are inclined to accumulate chromosomal abnormalities to the point where they actually lose the ability to produce viable seeds.
Not only is saffron the most expensive spice in the world, with the possible exception of the seeds of some orchids, it is the most valuable of all plant products. Weight for weight gold is cheap in comparison. There are two reasons for this, firstly only a minute fraction of the plant is harvested and secondly the harvest itself is very labour intensive. To justify exorbitant prices, those in the trade delight in informing us how many thousands of crocus flowers are required to produce each handful of saffron. Yields vary considerably from more than ten kilograms of saffron per hectare under good conditions to fewer than two in unfertile regions of Kashmir. This equates to between 70,000 and 300,000 flowers per kilo, or 180 to 750 hours involved in hand picking the flowers and pinching out their stigmas for drying. The annual world market in saffron is estimated to be based on 10 billion hand picked crocus flowers. The majority of the flower is of no value and for approximately a month during harvest huge heaps of discarded petals litter Spain, India and Iran, as they once clogged the streets of Saffron Walden.
The high value of the saffron crop have long made it an attractive target for adulteration, the simplest form of which was to allow the dried threads to absorb moisture and hence gain weight by storing them in a humid atmosphere. An alternative method for increasing the weight was by coating the saffron in oil, glycerine or honey. If the spice was sold in powered form then other parts of the saffron flower such as the anthers may have been added, or indeed it may have been adulterated with other plant materials including turmeric, safflower or marigold. Such practices have always been frowned upon, to the extent that in medieval Germany, Jobst Findeker and his substandard saffron were burnt at the stake in Nuremberg in 1444 for their crimes, as an early form of spiced kebab.
There is a sad irony about Findeker’s demise, because unlike today where the use of saffron is almost exclusively culinary, in the medieval period it was used extensively as a medicine. It was thought to cure insomnia, colds and asthma, be effective against scarlet fever, cancers and smallpox, act as a sedative, a pain-killer and an aphrodisiac and be a diaphoretic, an emmenagogue and expectorant. In reality it is probably none of these things, but it is a neurotoxin, but only at doses likely to bankrupt before poisoning. All the same Findeker was probably doing the citizens of Nuremberg a favour by diluting their dubious cure-all.
Even more poisonous is the autumn crocus or meadow saffron, which has sometimes been confused with true saffron. This crocus look-alike is actually a member of the lily family. Its pale purple flowers can be found growing wild in old damp pastures in southern Britain, but it has become increasingly rare because it has been destroyed by farmers trying to prevent the poisoning of cattle. The autumn crocus was formally used to treat gout and today is the source of colchicine, a powerful drug used by geneticists to prevent cells from division and help visualise chromosomes.
Although there is little in the way of direct evidence, it seems likely that the saffron grown in Essex and Cambridgeshire during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was intended neither for medicinal or culinary use. In fact there appears never to have been a tradition of using saffron in the kitchens of Essex, instead it was probably primarily used to produce a yellow dye. Before Saffron Walden was so called, it was an important market town trading in wool and yarns. Modern synthetic alternatives have long since replaced saffron as a dye. In the end therefore Findeker’s successors triumphed, at least in part.