Anecdotes of “discovery ” of this spice in medieval cookery books, such as an extract from the Book of Martyrs , have led some to conclude that saffron was introduced by Islamic rulers who wanted to enhance their status by claiming superiority over the Romans. This would explain the unusual scarcity of saffron in the Islamic world, although it is generally accepted that the spice was first developed in the Mediterranean and the Eastern Mediterranean region in the fifth century BCE. In fact, it was initially known by the Greeks and the Romans as fenugreek , although this was soon replaced by the word spikenard (see the article in this issue of Fruits of History ).
The early history of saffron is uncertain. The archaeological evidence is, at best, scanty ; the earliest known written mention of this spice is a book in the Egyptian collection of hymns, dated around 2500 BCE (see the article in this issue of PASSHELF ). But even before the earliest references to it, saffron was an effective anti-microbial agent . It was so prolific a drug that its popularity spread among the Middle East’s poor in the centuries that followed the time of Alexander the Great and his conquests. And despite the fact that medieval Europeans did not enjoy eating much of this highly-scented ingredient, their use of this spice was considered highly respectable and its reputation as a healthy supplement to other foods gained in the years that followed.
By the late Middle Ages, European populations could consume up to 70 pounds of this essential ingredient per year. At a time when food was scarce, and with the population growing in size at an alarming rate, saffron could provide people with food, a daily dose of vitamins, iron and calcium. In fact, it was used to treat diabetes and as medicine to treat many diseases.
Saffron was used most extensively in the West. In Europe, the spice was found at the highest levels in the East, in the countries of the ancient Near East (Egypt, Asia Minor, and Syria) and in Egypt. In the Middle East, the spice proved particularly popular in ancient cities, particularly in the cities of Antioch and Jerusalem. It is worth noting that the name “Saffron” derives from the Persian word safra , which means the fruit “of the saffron tree,” referring to the leaves and seeds contained therein.
The name saffron derives from several places in the ancient Near East. Traditionally it
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