My earliest memories are of those too early mornings in the kitchen helping my mother prepare for the evening’s meal. The feel of washing the rice, the smell of cutting fresh herbs, and the sound of simmering eggplants all live joyfully within me but none more than my experience with saffron.
Before I could speak, I knew I loved this healing herb — from the small, sweet bites of shol-e-zard (saffron-infused rice pudding) my mother would feed me from her fingertips, to the way it made me feel, to my escapable desire for more. It was very fortunate then that I lived in an Iranian household, because saffron was woven into every facet of our lives from our food, ritual, textiles, and medicine.
Those mornings preparing food inevitably turned into afternoons, when my mother would finally pull her brass mortar and pestle from the shelf to prepare the saffron. Placing a silk cloth underneath the mortar, careful not to waste any of the precious threads, she began to pound a handful of threads into a fine powder.
The part I loved the most was the blooming. As my mother poured hot water over the crimson red powder, it began to swirl and unravel into a golden liquid. The golden liquid danced with the powder until finally an earthy, intoxicating aroma rose from the mortar.
When the saffron-laced food made its way onto the table, the room would undoubtedly transform. Under the love spell of saffron, we allowed ourselves to be joyfully boisterous, loving, kind. It was in these mystical and curious encounters that I fell in love with plants and the endless alchemy they inspired.
From Stigma to Saffron
The threads of saffron are harvested from the autumn-blooming saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), from the stigma and style of the purple flower. No one knows for sure where this crocus originated but “saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000-year-old depictions of prehistoric places in northwest Iran.”1 Today 90% of the world’s saffron is grown and cultivated in eastern Iran, in the region of Khorasan.
Harvest happens in early November, as gatherers go out before dawn to pick the flowers before sunrise. At dawn, the crocuses unanimously open to greet the sun, and the harvest stops until the next early morning. After the flowers are collected, they are placed on a table, as each person carefully gathers the three stigmas found within each crocus flower.
It takes roughly 463 threads to make up 1 gram of saffron! As a result, it can be quite expensive. I have noticed that many westerners shy away from using saffron because of this. However, when you learn how to use this culinary herb and process it properly by blooming it, you’ll find that a very little goes a long way. You can then begin to indulge in saffron in ways comparable to other rare intoxicants like vanilla, cacao, and coffee.
How to Bloom Saffron
Once the saffron has bloomed, you can add it to rice dishes, stews, dessert bases, beverages, and even body oils, lotions, and perfumes.
What you’ll need…
- 7 to 9 saffron threads
- 1/4 cup warm water
- Grind the threads in a mortar (preferably one made of brass or marble as a lot of material can be lost in a wooden mortar) until a fine powder is made.
- Place the powdered herb in a small bowl or pot, and add the warm water. It is also traditional to add the powder to warmed ghee, warmed milk, or rosewater as an alternative menstruum for blooming saffron.
How to Use Saffron
In Iranian culture saffron is traditionally used for a large spectrum of health needs. Growing up my mother would give me saffron tea for nausea, indigestion, and stomachaches, giving a nod to its warming, bitter, and antispasmodic qualities. It’s also saffron’s antispasmodic properties that are prized in Iran for headache and muscle pain. Cyrus the Great, one of Persia’s most revered kings, swore by a saffron-infused bath. He believed it aided in the healing of his wounds, which shines a light upon its antiseptic effects.
However, more than anything, this plant is most famously recognized and used for its aphrodisiac and uplifting properties. Cleopatra was known for indulging in saffron wine with her lovers. Graeco-Roman mythology claims that the seeds of the gods gave birth to the saffron crocus. In Persian history, “a pouch of saffron worn on a string around the neck, and dangling above the heart would enkindle love.”2
In Iran, saffron is infused in tea, syrup, savory dishes, desserts, perfumes, deodorants, salves, oils, and incense. While there are so many ways to explore incorporating this plant into our herbal and culinary cabinets, my favorite preparation is one that reminds me of my childhood, a simple lightly sweetened saffron milk. The saffron transforms the milk into a deep golden yellow color, and the aromatics from the saffron, rose, and cardamom harmonize to create a floral and ethereal taste.
There is no better time to enjoy this warming and intoxicating saffron milk than now, in November, as an ode to the crocus harvest commencing. As the weather darkens and cools, saffron milk is a wonderful potion for the long winter ahead — supporting our spirits, warming our hearts, and reminding us of the sun dawning again once more.
What you’ll need…
- 7 to 9 saffron threads
- 5 to 7 cardamom pods
- 4 cups milk of choice (traditionally a sheep milk would be used but other dairy and non-dairy options like nut, rice, oat, and coconut work wonderfully too)
- Handful dried rose petals
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon rose water (optional)
- Sweetener of choice
- In a mortar and pestle, ground your threads of saffron into a fine powder; put aside.
- Next grind your cardamom pods in a mortar and pestle until the aroma is revealed; put aside.
- In a small pot, add your milk, cardamom, rose petals, and cinnamon and bring the temperature up to just before a boil.
- Once you have reached a gentle simmer, stir in your saffron powder, rose water (if using), and sweetener.
- Let the milk simmer for 2 to 4 additional minutes, stirring occasionally, until the color turns golden. Strain, serve, and enjoy while warm.
Yield: 4 cups