1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Saffron

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SAFFRON (Arab. za'fardn), a product manufactured from the dried stigmas and part of the style of the saffron crocus, a cultivated form of Crocus sativus; some of the wild forms (var. Thomasii, Cartwrightianus) are also employed for the manufacture. The purple flower, which blooms late in autumn, is very similar to that of the common spring crocus, and the stigmas, which are protruded from the perianth, are of a characteristic orange-red colour. The fruit is rarely formed. The Egyptians, though acquainted with the bastard safflower, do not seem to have possessed saffron; but it is named in Canticles iv. 14 among other sweet-smelling herbs. It is also repeatedly mentioned (κρόκος) by Homer, Hippocrates and other Greek writers; and the word “ crocodile ” was long supposed to have been derived from κρόκος and δειλός, whence we have such stories as that “ the crocodile's tears are never true save when he is forced where saffron groweth ” (Fuller's Worthies). It has long been cultivated in Persia and Kashmir, and is supposed to have been introduced into China by the Mongol invasion. It is mentioned in the Chinese materia medical (Pun tsaou, 1552–1578). The chief seat of cultivation in early times, however, was the town of Corycus (modern Korghoz) in Cilicia, and from this central point of distribution it may not improbably have spread east and west. According to Hehn, the town derived its name from the crocus; Reymond, on the other hand, with more probability, holds that the name of the drug arose from that of the town. It was cultivated by the Arabs in Spain about 961, and is mentioned in an English leech book of the 10th century, but seems to have disappeared from western Europe till reintroduced by the Crusaders. According to Hakluyt, it was brought into England from Tripoli by a pilgrim, who hid a stolen corm in the hollow of his staff. It was especially cultivated near Hinton in Cambridgeshire and in Essex at Safron Walden, its cultivators being called “ crokers.”

Saffron was used as an ingredient in many of the complicated medicines of early times. That it was very largely used in cookery is evidenced by many writers; thus Laurenbergius (Apparatus plantarum, 1632) makes the large assertion “ In te familiari vix ullus est telluris habitat us angulus ubi non sit croci quotidian usurpation aspersi vel incocti cibis.” The Chinese used also to employ it largely, and the Persians and Spaniards still mix it with their rice. As a perfume it was strewn in Greek halls, courts and theatres, and in the Roman baths. The streets of Rome were sprinkled with saffron when Nero made his entry into the city.

It was, however, mainly used as a dye. It was a royal colour in early Greek times, though afterwards, perhaps from its abundant use in the baths and as a scented salve, it was especially appropriated by the hetairae. In ancient Ireland a king's mantle was dyed with saffron, and even down to the 17th century the “ lein-croich,” or saffron-dyed shirt, was worn by persons of rank in the Hebrides. In medieval illumination it furnished, as a glaze upon burnished tinfoil, a cheap and effective substitute for gold. The sacred spot on the forehead of a Hindu pundit is also partly composed of it. Its main use in England was to colour pastry and confectionery, and it is still used for this purpose in some parts of the country (notably Cornwall).

One grain of saffron rubbed to powder with sugar and a little water imparts a distinctly yellow tint to ten gallons of water. This colouring power is due to the presence of polychlorite, a substance whose chemical formula appears to be C48H60O15, and which may be obtained by treating saffron with ether, and afterwards exhausting with water. Under acids it yields the following reaction—
           Polychlorite.          Crocin.     Essential oil.  Sugar.

Crocin, according to Watts, Dict. of Chem., has a composition of C29H42O15 or C58H42O30. This crocin is a red colouring matter, and it is surmised that the red colour of the stigmas is due to this reaction taking place in nature.

Saffron is chiefly cultivated in Spain, France, Sicily, on the lower spurs of the Apennines and in Persia and Kashmir. The ground has to be thoroughly cleared of stones, manured and trenched, and the corms are planted in ridges. The flowers are gathered at the end of October, in the early morning, just when they are beginning to open after the night. The stigmas and a part of the style are carefully picked out, and the wet saffron is then scattered on sheets of pa er to a depth of 2 or 3 in.; over this a cloth is laid, and next a board, with a heavy weight. A strong heat is applied for about two hours so as to make the saffron “ sweat, " and a gentler temperature for a further period of twenty-four hours, the cake being turned every hour so that every part is thoroughly dried. This is known as cake sagron to distinguish it from hay saffron, which consists merely of the dried stigmas.

The drug has naturally always been liable to great adulteration in spite of penalties, the severity of which suggests the surviving tradition of its sacred character. Thus in Nuremberg a regular saffron inspection was held, and in the 15th century we read of men being burned in the market-place along with their adulterated saffron, while on another occasion three persons convicted of the same crime were buried alive. Grease and butter are still very frequently mixed with the cake, and shreds of beef dipped in saffron water are also used. Good saffron has a deep orange-red colour; if it is light yellow or blackish, it is bad or too old.