CROCUS SATIVUS

In antique times, Krokus was the name of a handsome boy. Two legends tie his destiny to this misterious plant, which saffron is extracted from. According to the first legend, the Greek god Hermes loved the boy and killed him by accident. The first crocus grew at the spot where Krokus' blood outpoured on the ground.

 
The second legend tells about Krokus' love with Smilax, a nymph. They loved each other so madly that they were inseparable. Growing tired of these neverending flirts, the gods made an end to it by transforming Smilax into a yew tree and Krokus into – what else – a crocus.
 
Probably, Zeus wanted to feel the same passion the night he slept on a mattress filled with saffron...
 
The crocus flower plays an important part in ancient religions, since saffron was one of the most wanted spices in old civilisations. Without exaggerating, one can say that the crocus flower was the queen of the flora in ancient times.

Saffron is the spice taken from the dried grains of the Crocus Sativus L., a type of crocus flower which was grown in ancient times. It is part of the species of the iris (Iridaceae) and is an arduous tuber. The name crocus comes from the Greek language: "krókos" = thread, referring to the threadlike grain of the crocus flower. The appellation saffron comes from the Arab language:

"za'farân". Za'fara means to color with saffron and derives from the words "asfar" = yellow and "safrâ" = yellow flower.

There are doubts about the origin of the lilac saffron crocus, blooming in our hemisphere in October, since it doesn't grow wild anywhere. Most probably, it comes from Asia Minor, between the Ageaes and Iran, which would explain the vast cultivation in Cilicia, in southeastern Turkey. The provenance of the crocus goes back 3'500 years from today, to the Orient. Saffron crocus reached our latitude through Andalusia, brought to Central Europe by mercenaries.

 

People of Switzerland, namely from the Valais, tried to grow saffron crocus at the end of the 14th century, already - and one can find saffron there, still today. The Guild of Saffron was founded on May 4th 1978 in Mund in the Canton of Valais, the only place in Switzerland where saffron crocus survived the industrial and economical evolution of the past 50 years. Nowadays, the guild counts more than 150 members. The Guild of Saffron of Mund patronizes and supports the cultivation of saffron as well as the traditional environment. Following the annual general assembly of the guild, traditionally held in November right after the saffron crop, statutatory business and experiences are exchanged and then the saffron stock market is opened and the treasured spice of Mund is sold – the demand always being by far bigger than the offer.

Scientists of the University of Berne have tried to find out about the hallucinogenic effect of saffron, because authors of the ancient world already warned about too high dosage of saffron, leading to serious symptoms of empoisoning or even to death. Between 10 and 20 gramms can be leathal for a human being. First symptoms are giggles, followed by paralysis of the central nervous system. Old stories tell of a man having laughed himself to death after having eaten meat which was overseasoned with saffron.

 

Saffron remains clouded in secrecy, especially through historical events such as criminal incidents like theft, counterfeit and smuggling. It is a precious substance, which seems to have not only seasoning, but also healing and hallucinogenic effects on human beings.

 

In 1374, the Baron of Bechburg and his men attacked a train coming from Lyon with destination Basel at the Oberer Hauenstein and stole 400 kg of saffron threads, which corresponds to about 50'000'000 (50 millions!) crocus flower grains, totalling to a value of approximately 5 Million Swiss Francs nowadays.

Since mankind has always wanted to enrich himself, once the value of saffron was discovered, the precious powder has been illegally diluted with cement, flour, talc powder and other substances – unmistakably reminding of today's drug dealers.

 

No wonder that, in medieval times, offices were established all over Europe, controlling the genuinity of this natural product. The Ufficio dello Zafferano in Venice was one of them.

 
Sources:
  • Mund, Das Safrandorf im Wallis, von Erwin Jossen, Rotten-Verlag, Brig
  • Les Epices, von Jan-Öjvind Swahn, Verlag Gründ, Paris
  • dtv-Lexikon, Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag, München