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In ancient times, people prized saffron more for its medicinal qualities than for its culinary qualities. Egyptian papyrus already mentioned the orange-red stamens, which...
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In ancient times, people prized saffron more for its medicinal qualities than for its culinary qualities.
Egyptian papyrus already mentioned the orange-red stamens, which represented the heart of “Crocus sativus”.
Hippocrates (Coo 460 BCE – Larissa 377 BCE) prescribed it for rheumatism.
Pliny the Elder (Como 23 BCE- Stabia 79 AD) praised the therapeutic property to soothe cough and throat aches.
Dioscorides, an ancient Greek physician and botanist (c. 40–90 AD), who lived in Imperial Rome under Nero and author of the Treatise on Medical Herbs, recommended it as an antispasmodic.
Medieval medicine considered saffron a panacea, while in the Renaissance they used it not only to season foods but also to give a blond-copper hue to the hair of the most important women at court.
Saffron has been for centuries the basic element in the preparation of foods, creams, sacred perfumes and aphrodisiacs together with honey, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper.
In Italy, notably in Abruzzo, they cultivate the crocus sativus Linnaeus, of the Iridaceae family. From this species of crocus, they obtain saffron. The authentic Abruzzo saffron, today rare and precious, is considered one of the best in the world.
Cesare Ripa (Perugia 1555 or 1560 – Rome 1622), an Academic scholar and Italian writer, in his ‘Iconologia’ (1593), or Iconology: On the Formation and Transmission of Symbolic Images, describes, through allegories, Abruzzo. “It is represented as a woman of virile and robust appearance, dressed in green, who stands in an open space, steep and mountainous, hand holding a pole with the right and handing out with the left hand a basket full of saffron with beautiful grace”.
In the nineteenth-century language, the crocus flower alludes to a carefree youth. Maybe for its luminous calyx shape, or since the ‘crocus ancyrensis’ blooms in late January, early February, followed by chrysantus and other species full of bright colours, from white to saffron yellow, to violet, amaranth, brown, bicolour and striated, from lilac to cream to purple.
“And not the least prodigy of tiny crocuses is the habit of opening many flowers on the same stem. As soon as you think they are withering, here comes a new production”, writes Vita Sackville-West (“Giardino alla Sackville-West”, Milan 1991 – The Illustrated Garden Book).
The Piana di Navelli, in the province of L’Aquila, a plateau 700 meters high, is internationally known for its saffron.
The production and exportation of this product, which obtained the Protected Designation of Origin under the name of Zafferano dell’Aquila, define the economy of the area. The origin of this agricultural specialization dates back to 1500, when a Dominican father, who worked at the court of Frederick II, in contravention of the prohibitions that protected the Spanish monopoly, managed to steal some bulbs and bring them in Navelli.
Locals plant the crocus sativus in July, which then blossoms between October and November. Its flowers are purple, and each plant contains a single red-coloured stigma, divided into three strands, from which you can extract saffron.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world: to harvest one kilo of saffron we need about 150,000 flowers and over two months of work.
The removed stigmas, during the drying in the oven at a moderate temperature, lose up to 80% of the weight.
Saffron contains about 150 volatile aromatic substances, including the chronic that can switch off free radicals, and high capacity in removing the same radicals, as well as a protective effect against cellular apoptosis from stress. This could explain its anti-ageing action on the skin.
Saffron also contains, among other components, carbohydrates, proteins, essential fatty acids and sterols.
Natural medicine recognizes its sedative, antidepressant, decongestant, antispasmodic, expectorant and anti-inflammatory properties.
At the scientific level, studies have also advanced a possible immunomodulatory activity.
Other recent studies have shown activity on photo-induced damage on the retina in various eye diseases and skin pigmentation disorders.
Due to their common embryonic origin, the two tissues have similar receptors, both cutaneous and retinal, and undergo melanin deposits that can give rise to discolouration or maculopathy.
A small recommendation: you should not take saffron in high-dose, as it can cause an increase in pulse rate, perspiration and urine output. The lethal dose 50:20 g per kg.
As Paracelsus wrote in the Opera Omnia: “Omnia venenum sunt: nec sine veneno quicquam existit. Dosis sola facit, ut venenum not fit “(All things are poison, and nothing is without poison, the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison).