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Saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine for more than 3,000 years.[1] The world's most expensive spice by weight,[2] saffron consists of stigmas plucked from the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). The resulting dried "threads" are distinguished by their bitter taste, hay-like fragrance, and slight metallic notes. Saffron is native to Southwest Asia,[3][4] but was first cultivated in Greece.[5] Iran is the world's largest producer of saffron, accounting for over half the total harvest.

In both antiquity and modern times, most saffron was and is used in the preparation of food and drink: cultures spread across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas value the red threads for use in such items as baked foods, curries, and liquor. Medicinally, saffron was used in ancient times to treat a wide range of ailments, including stomach upsets, bubonic plague, and smallpox; clinical trials have shown saffron's potential as an anticancer and anti-aging agent. Saffron has been used to colour textiles and other items, many of which carry a religious or hierarchical significance.

Saffron cultivation has long centred on a broad belt of Eurasia bounded by the Mediterranean Sea in the southwest to Kashmir and China in the northeast. The major saffron producers of antiquity—Iran, Spain, India, and Greece—continue to dominate the world trade. The cultivation of saffron in the Americas was begun by members of the Schwenkfelder Church in Pennsylvania. In recent decades cultivation has spread to New Zealand, Tasmania, and California.

Modern trade

Virtually all saffron is produced in a wide geographical belt extending from the Mediterranean in the west to Kashmir in the east. All continents outside this zone—except Antarctica—produce smaller amounts. Annual worldwide production amounts to some 300 tonnes, including whole threads and powder.[6] This includes 50 tonnes of annual production of top-grade "coupe" saffron in 1991.[7] Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy (in decreasing order of production) dominate the world saffron harvest, with Iran and Spain alone producing 80% of the world crop. Afghanistan has resumed cultivation in recent decades. Iran with its cultivation of different varieties, is the largest producer of saffron with 93.7% of the world's total production. The main cultivation areas in the country are in eastern and southeastern parts. The Khorassan zone has managed to achieve an excellent yield on the production and export of saffron over time, so much so that 90% of saffron production in Iran is obtained from there. Other famous regions are Fars Province, Estahbanat mainly and Kerman Province whose output is now on the up. Qayen region here is famous for its quality saffron. Kashmir's share has declined due to poor quality, caused by war[8]

Despite numerous cultivation efforts in such countries as Austria, England, Germany, and Switzerland, only select locales continue the harvest in Northern and Central Europe. Among these is the small Swiss village of Mund, in the Valais canton, whose annual saffron output comes to several kilograms.[6] Micro-scale cultivation also occurs in Tasmania,[9] China, Egypt, France, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, Turkey (especially Safranbolu), California, and Central Africa.[4][10]

The high cost of saffron is due to the difficulty of manually extracting large numbers of minute stigmas; the only part of the crocus with the desired properties of aroma and flavour. In addition, a large number of flowers need to be processed in order to yield marketable amounts of saffron. A pound of dry saffron (0.45 kg) requires the harvesting of some 50,000 flowers, the equivalent of a football pitch's area of cultivation.[11] By another estimate some 75,000 flowers are needed to produce one pound of dry saffron.[12]This too depends on the average size of each saffron cultivar's stigmas. Another complication arises in the flowers' simultaneous and transient blooming. Since so many crocus flowers are needed to produce just one kilogram of dry saffron, about forty hours of intense labour, harvesting is often a frenetic affair. In Kashmir, for example, the thousands of growers must work continuously in relays over the span of one or two weeks throughout both day and night.[13] However, the quality has decreased in recent years. Production is in small area surrounding the village Pampore close to Srinagar. The fields are divided into sections one or two square meters and are kept devoid of vegetation all 12 months. Flowers show up for a about two weeks in the end of October or the beginning of November. They are picked from the plants and separated into styles are waste afterwards. Including the final drying of the styles, all the work is done by families that use little or no mechanical aid.

Culinary use

Saffron is used extensively in European, North African, and Asian cuisines. Its aroma is described by experts as resembling that of honey, with grassy, hay-like, and metallic notes. Saffron's taste is like that of hay, but with hints of bitter. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to items it is soaked with. For these traits saffron is used in baked goods, cheeses, confectioneries, curries, liquors, meat dishes, and soups. Saffron is used in India, Iran, Spain, and other countries as a condiment for rice, along with sultanas and bay leaves.Saffron rice is used in many cuisines. It is used in many famous dishes such as paella valenciana, which is a spicy rice-meat preparation, and the zarzuela fish stews. They are also popular for spicing up subcontinental beef and chicken foods. It is also used in many Indian sweets, particuarly among Muslims and Rajasthanis. Saffron ice cream is one such delicacy. In previous times, many dishes used copious amounts not for taste but to parade their wealth.[16] It is also used in fabada asturiana. Saffron is essential in making the Frenchbouillabaisse, which is a spicy fish stew from Marseilles, the Italian risotto alla milanese, and the Swedish and Cornish varieties of saffron bun. Saffron-flavoured butter lassi is a symbol of visiting Jodhpur, a ancient center of Rajasthan. Saffron-flavoured ice cream, is also widespread.

A Swedish-style saffron bun, traditionally consumed before Christmas

A saffron bun, in Swedish lussekatt (literally "Lucy cat", after Saint Lucy) or lussebulle, is a rich yeast dough bun that is flavoured with saffronand cinnamon or nutmeg and contains currants. In Sweden, no cinnamon or nutmeg is used in the bun, and raisins are used instead of currants. The buns are baked into many traditional shapes, of which the simplest is a reversed S-shape. They are traditionally eaten duringAdvent, and especially on Saint Lucy's Day, December 13. In England, the buns were traditionally baked on sycamore leaves and dusted with powdered sugar. This "revel bun" from Cornwall is baked for special occasions, such as anniversary feasts (revels), or the dedication of a church. In the West of Cornwall large saffron buns are also known as "tea treat buns" and are associated with Methodist Sunday Schooloutings or activities.

Saffron is one of the three essential ingredients in the Spanish paella valenciana, and is responsible for its yellow colouring.

Iranians use saffron in their national dish, chelow kabab, while Uzbeks use it in a special rice dish known as a "wedding plov" (cf. pilaf). Moroccans use it in their tajine-prepared dishes, includingkefta (meatballs with tomato), mqualli (a citron-chicken dish), and mrouzia (succulent lamb dressed with plums and almonds). Saffron is also central in chermoula herb mixture, which flavours many Moroccan dishes. Indian cuisine uses saffron in its biryanis, which are spicy rice-vegetable dishes. (An example is the Pakki variety of Hyderabadi biryani.) It is also used in Indian milk-based sweets:[5] gulab jamunkulfidouble ka meetha, and "saffron lassi", the last a spicy Jodhpuri drink with a yogurt base.

Basic Saffron rice, made with bouillon cubes and saffron

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 flavours very different from that of saffron. Saffron is also used in the confectionery and liquor industries; this is its most common use in Italy.[17] Chartreuseizarra, and strega are types of alcoholic beveragesthat rely on saffron to provide a flourish of colour and flavour.

Experienced saffron users often crumble and pre-soak threads for several minutes prior to adding them to their dishes. For example, 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.[18] Afterward, the soaking solution is added to the hot and cooking dish. This allows even distribution of saffron's colour and flavour throughout a dish, and is important when preparing baked goods or thick sauces.[16] It can also be toasted or drenched in alcohol. Only a small pinch is needed and saffron can be stroed safely for great legnth.

Medicinal use

Saffron's folkloric uses as an herbal medicine are legendary. It was used for its carminative (suppressing cramps and flatulence) andemmenagogic (enhancing pelvic blood flow) properties.[19] Medieval Europeans used saffron to treat respiratory infections and disorders such as coughs and colds, scarlet feversmallpox, cancer, hypoxia, and asthma. Other targets included blood disorders, insomnia, paralysis, heart diseases, stomach upsets, gout, chronic uterine haemorrhage, dysmorrhea, amenorrheababy colic, and eye disorders.[20] For ancient Persians and Egyptians, saffron was also an aphrodisiac, a general-use antidote against poisoning, a digestive stimulant, and a tonic fordysentery and measles. In Europe practitioners of the archaic "Doctrine of Signatures" took saffron's yellowish hue as a sign of its supposed curative properties against jaundice.[21]

Initial research suggests that carotenoids present in saffron are anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing),[10] anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), and immunomodulatory properties. Dimethylcrocetin, the compound responsible for these effects, counters a wide range of murine (rodent) tumours and human leukaemia cell lines. Saffron extract also delays ascites tumour growth, delays papilloma carcinogenesis, inhibitssquamous cell carcinoma, and decreases soft tissue sarcoma incidence in treated mice. Researchers theorise that, based on the results ofthymidine-uptake studies, such anticancer activity is best attributed to dimethylcrocetin's disruption of the DNA-binding ability of a class of enzymes known as type II topoisomerases.[22] As topoisomerases play a key role in managing DNA topology, the malignant cells are less successful in synthesizing or replicating their own DNA.

Close-up of a single crocus thread (the dried stigma). Actual length is about 20 millimetres (0.79 in).

Saffron's pharmacological effects on malignant tumours have been documented in studies done both in vitro and in vivo. It extends the lives of mice that are intraperitoneally impregnated with transplanted sarcomas, namely, samples of S-180, Dalton's lymphoma ascites (DLA), and Ehrlich ascites carcinoma (EAC) tumours. Researchers followed this by orally administering 200 mg of saffron extract per each kg of mouse body weight. As a result the life spans of the tumour-bearing mice were extended to 111.0%, 83.5%, and 112.5%, respectively, in relation to baseline spans. Researchers also discovered that saffron extract exhibits cytotoxicity in relation to DLA, EAC, P38B, and S-180 tumour cell lines cultured in vitro. Thus, saffron has shown promise as a new and alternative treatment for a variety of cancers.[23]

Besides wound-healing and anticancer properties, saffron is also an antioxidant. This means that, as an "anti-aging" agent, it neutralises free radicals. Specifically, methanol extractions of saffron neutralise at high rates the DPPH (IUPAC nomenclature: 1,1-diphenyl-2-picrylhydrazyl) radicals. This occurred via vigorous proton donation to DPPH by two of saffron's active agents, safranal and crocin. Thus, at concentrations of 500 and 1000 ppm, crocin studies showed neutralisation of 50% and 65% of radicals, respectively. Safranal displayed a lesser rate of radical neutralisation than crocin, however. Such properties give saffron extracts promise as an ingredient for use as an antioxidant in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and as a food supplement.[24] Ingested at high enough doses, however, saffron is lethal. Several studies done on lab animals have shown that saffron's LD50(median lethal dose, or the dose at which 50% of test animals die from overdose) is 20.7 g/kg when delivered via a decoction.[10][25] C. sativus has demonstrated antidepressant effects.[26]

It is used greatly in Indian Ayurveda tretement. This has been known since 25 centuries,[citation needed] and are written in the great Indian texts. Also known as Kashmiran, Bahleeka, Rudhira and Sankocha. It can soothe all sorts of aches and pains across the body,[citation needed] and also solves eyesight decay[citation needed]. It can also cure alcoholism

Colouring and perfumery

Despite its high cost, saffron has been used as a fabric dye, particularly in China and India. It is an unstable colouring agent; the imparted vibrant orange-yellow hue quickly fades to a pale and creamy yellow.[27] The saffron stamens, even in minute amounts, yield a luminous yellow-orange colour. Increasing the amount of saffron applied will turn the fabric's imparted colour an increasingly rich shade of red. Traditionally, clothing dyed with saffron was reserved for the noble classes, implying that saffron played a ritualised and caste-representative role. Saffron dye is responsible for the saffron, vermilion, and ochre hues of the distinctive mantles and robes worn by Hindu and Buddhist monks. In medieval Ireland and Scotland, well-to-do monks wore a long linen undershirt known as a léine; it was traditionally dyed with saffron.[28] In histology, the hematoxylinphloxine-saffron (HPS) stain is used as a tissue stain to make biological structures more visible under a microscope.

There have been many attempts to replace costly saffron with a cheaper dye. Saffron's usual substitutes in food—turmericsafflower, and other spices—yield a bright yellowish hue that does not precisely match that of saffron. Nevertheless, saffron's main colour-yielding constituent, the flavonoid crocin, has been discovered in the gardenia fruit. Because gardenia is much less expensive to cultivate than saffron, it is currently being researched in China as an economical saffron-dye substitute.[29]

In Europe, saffron threads were a key component of an aromatic oil known as crocinum, which comprised such ingredients as alkanetdragon's blood (for colour), and wine (for colour).Crocinum was applied as a perfume to hair. Another preparation involved mixing saffron with wine to produce a viscous yellow spray that was copiously applied to Roman theatres as an air freshener.

 

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