Saffron has been cultivated for more than 3,500 years across many cultures, continents, and civilizations. Derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), saffron is among the world's most costly substances. With its stunning ability to yield brilliant color, the saffron has been used as a seasoning, fragrance, dye, and medicine.
The saffron crocus first grew wild in the Middle East and was probably first cultivated in or near ancient Greece and prized in Imperial Rome. Saffron cultivation declined steeply following the fall of the Roman Empire.
For several centuries thereafter, saffron cultivation was rare or non-existent throughout Europe. This changed when the Moorish civilization spread from North Africa to Spain.
French saffron cultivation probably started during the 13th century. Crocus sativus was likely introduced from Spain and from the Middle-East by pilgrims, merchants, and Knights. Its first uses are documented in the south-west of the Kingdom around 1250.
By the 14th century, the wide use of saffron for spicing and coloring food is documented in recipe books such as the "Viandier de Taillevent", written by the King's cook .During the 15th century, local saffron farming is attested by taxes levied by the religious power, which reveal how profitable saffron crops had become.
Saffron demand skyrocketed when the Black Death of 1347–1350 struck Europe. It was coveted by plague victims for medicinal purposes, and yet many of the farmers capable of growing it had died off. Large quantities of non-European saffron were imported as a result.
Saffron was one of the contested points of hostility that broke out between the declining landed gentry and the increasingly wealthy merchants. The "Saffron War" occured when one 800 pound shipment of saffron was hijacked and stolen from the merchants by nobles.
The stolen cargo, which was in route to Basel in Switzerland, would at today's market prices be valued at more than half a million dollars. That shipment was finally returned, but the wider 13th–century saffron trade was still subject to mass piracy.
Thieves plying Mediterranean waters would often ignore gold stores and instead steal Venetian and Genoan marketed saffron bound for Europe. Wary of such unpleasantness, Basel began to plant its own corms.
Several years of large and lucrative saffron harvests made Basel extremely prosperous when compared to other European towns. Citizens sought to protect their status by outlawing the transport of corms out of the town; guards were posted to prevent thieves from picking flowers or digging up corms.
In time the center of European saffron trade moved to Nuremberg in Germany. The merchants of Venice continued their rule of the Mediterranean sea trade, trafficking saffron varieties from Sicily, France and Spain, Austria, Crete and Greece, and the Ottoman Empire.
Adulterated goods soon appeared made of marigold petals soaked in honey. Irritated Nuremberg authorities passed the Safranschou code to regulate the saffron trade. Producers of false saffron were fined, imprisoned, and executed—by fire.
Eventually saffron was most successfully grown in the south of France, in Italy and Spain.
These settlers, who became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, were by 1730 widely cultivating saffron after corms were first brought to America in a trunk. It was owned by German adherents of a Protestant church known as the Schwenkfelder Church.
Schwenkfelders, as members were known, were great lovers of saffron, and had grown it back in Germany. Pennsylvania Dutch saffron was soon being successfully marketed to Spanish colonists in the Caribbean. The high demand for the outstanding American grown saffron ensured that its listed price on the Philadelphia Commodities Exchange was set equal to that of gold!
The War of 1812 destroyed many of the merchant ships that had transported American saffron to clients abroad. As a result, Pennsylvanian saffron growers were left with a large surplus inventory.
Ever ingenious, Pennsylvania Dutch growers soon developed many alternate uses for the now abundant saffron in their own regional cooking—cakes, noodles, and chicken pot pies.
Today saffron production has shifted back to its original origins in the Middle East where 96% of the world’s saffron grown in Iran. Only1% of the globe’s saffron is now harvested in Spanish fields while Pennsylvania outstanding saffron is sought after by chefs around the world.