Raw Materials The Crocus-Hued Stigma of Saffron

The Crocus-Hued Stigma of Saffron

01/19/14 16:13:05 (17 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

When Alexander the Great reached Kashmir, he pitched his camp on a grassy plain. In the morning, he beheld his army afloat upon an ocean of mauve flowers that had opened overnight and reached all the way to his tent and under the hooves of his horses. Suspecting some sorcery, he turned back, avoiding battle. So says the legend. In fact, the Supreme Commander of the Superstitious had simply spent the night in a field of crosues, in a crop of wild saffron that may well have been used to make Mongra and Lacha, the finest qualities of this spice anywhere in the world. Just a pinch—no more, for saffron is potent and costly—infuses a flavor of far horizons: Persia, the Atlas, Crete, the monks of Tibet, fabrics snapping in the wind of Calcutta and feasts fit for a king.

So reads a snippet from Le Monde d'Hermès, authored by Yves Nespoulous, and who could argue with this beautiful introduction to the mysteries and intricacies of the most expensive spice in the world? Saffron refers to the three stigmata (Greek plural for "stigma") of each saffron crocus blossom (Crocus sativus), a species of crocus of the Iridaceae family, where iris also lurks. The word originates from the 12th-century Old French term safran, which itself derives from the Latin safranum (zafferano and azafrán in modern Italian and Spanish respectively). The Arabs called it aṣfar (أَصْفَر‎), which means "yellow," via the Persian paronymous zaʻfarān (زَعْفَرَان‎)and it was thus transported to the Greek as zafora/ζαφορά.

A FRESCO OF VIVID YELLOW AND PURPLES:
The History of Saffron

So ancient is saffron and so prized indeed that even 50,000 years ago remnants of saffron-inflected paint were found in caves in Iraq and it makes an appearance in ancient Chinese medical texts, such as the Shennong Bencaojing pharmacopoeia, a tome dating from 200–300 BC. But it is probably the Minoan frescoes from the late 2nd millenia BC which immortalized saffron in the collective conscious in its wild, rather than cultivated variety, the Crocus cartwrightianus, native in Crete, Greece.

The "Saffron Gatherers" fresco appearing on the walls of Xeste 3 building (1600–1500 BC) at the Akrotiri site, on the island of Santorini, Greece, depicts women one with a shaved and dyed head, another with thick black curls in colorful robes that leave their white chests free from constraint gathering saffron blossoms and stigmata for aromatizing and therapeutical purposes. In the Minoan palace of Knossos, in Crete, the famous Crocosyllektis/Κροκοσυλλέκτης ("saffron-gatherer") fresco of a blue monkey is vividly painted amid the flowers. Another fresco on Santorini has a Goddess supervising the harvesting of saffron, her unerring eye intent on the gatherers, while a woman close by is treating her ailing foot with saffron.

The volcanic eruption of Thera/Santorini buried the frescoes into ash for the safe-keeping of centuries to come, leaving legends recounting tales of brazen sailors embarking on perilous voyages to Soli in Cilicia in the hunt for saffron to use for ointments and perfumes. In one of the most tragic tales, reprised by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the handsome youth Crocus sets out in pursuit of the nymph Smilax in the woods near Athens. But despite her initial interest, Smilax soon is bored of him and transforms Crocus into a saffron crocus flower, the radiant stigmata the only manifestation of his virile and passionate desire for Smilax. It is therefore no coincidence that saffron was widely associated with professional courtesans, known in Greek as heterae/ἑταῖραι who used saffron for igniting passions.

Even primitive mascara was colored and aromatized with saffron to render eyelashes more alluring. The intense hay-like scent of saffron with its slightly metallic edge also made it a perfect deodorant, prompting townsfolk in the island of Rhodes to wear pouches of the spice on their person in order to mask the presence of malodorous fellow citizens during outings to the theatre.

Romans were no less keen on saffron's many qualities: Emperor Nero entered Rome stepping on saffron stigmata and petals along the streets (one would shudder to think of the sheer waste of energy and money in this), doctors used it in the famous Mithridatum (an anti-poison remedy created by legendary king Mithridates VI of Pontus, who thus became immune to poisons), while the wealthy classes daily bathed in saffron-infused water. The ever resourceful Cleopatra of Egypt used saffron in her warm bath for its coloring and cosmetic traits, but also before encounters with men, believing that saffron would offer more pleasure to the lovemaking.

But how did good old saffron come all the way to France's perfume cabinets and into our fine fragrance? According to Willard (2001) Roman colonists transported saffron to southern Gaul when they settled there, resulting in extensive cultivation until 271 AD whereupon Italy and its conquered lands was invaded by barbarian hordes en masse. Other historians claim saffron returned to France either with 8th-century Moors or with the Avignon Papacy in the 14th century.

From there to the fragrance industry was but a small leap…

PERFUMES REDOLENT OF DELICATE SAFFRON THREADS


The delicate, bitterish but sophisticated odor of saffron relies on picrocrocin and safranal (sometimes used to render a soft leather note in perfumes reminiscent of a medium point between shoe polish and black cherry) while the bright yellow color when the stigma is crushed or infused is due to a preponderance of  carotenoids.

Among the many beautiful fine fragrances that use saffron as a note, there are a few which are personal favorites due to their balanced and clever interweaving of the prized spice into the composition.
 


The at once dense and soft aroma of quality suede in Lancome's re-issued a few years ago Cuir is complimented admirably by the inherently leathery aspects of saffron, yet the whole is immersed in the translucence that precious labradorite possesses thanks to hesperidic touches of sweet mandarin and elegantly acrid bergamot. Opôné (by Diptyque) was named after an ancient trade center in Somalia on the east coast of Africa and the fragrance takes saffron with a generous pinch of rose. This is a traditional pairing that is most beautifully showcased in Safran Troublant by L'Artisan Parfumeur (where the spice is immersed in a dessert like plush of milky pudding). The simple and cozy aromatic mélange is brought to the boil by the addition of a slightly cumin-like note (although none is listed), raisin and rosewater. The Indian feast of Safran Troublant is closing with a decadent, sensuous dessert (with amber undertones, slightly powdery accents) that doesn't stick around for long yet makes you appreciate the fact that here is where Kama (the art of love) was born.
 


Perfumer Olivia Giacobetti's other saffron composition, apart from the iconic L'Artisan's one, is none other than Idole by Lubin. More masculine, less vanillic and cozy, Idole has sparkling facets of sweet spirits along with the lusciously dark, dry leathery and animalic background. If I truly loved amber fragrances more passionately, this could have been my companion on the snowy mountaintops of Kaimaktsalan while sipping saffron-infused black tea to the exclusion of all others.
 

Rose is also the supporting player to saffron in Agent Provocateur's original eau de parfum from 2000. The big Moroccan rose in its heart, much like in classic Jean Couturier's Coriandre from the 1970s, is complimented by a paper-y woody note of amber and vetiver combined with warm musks, but it is the saffron along with the upbeat coriander that bring a rather animalic and weirdly "dirty" quality to the fragrance. Honeyed dates and pink pepper combine with golden saffron in Ormonde Jayne's Ta'if to evoke a stop on the way on the Silk Route with the slight green tinge of dampness of fallen leaves in a desert oasis, while the cumin, wood and vetiver elements in Comme des Garcons 2 Man compliment saffron in a masculine clarion to battle for the urbanized battlefield rather than muddy Bannockburn.

Last but not least Dawn's Spencer Hurwitz's homage to Cenni di Pepo (Giovanni) Cimabue (c. 1240 — c. 1302), the artist to bridge the opulence of Byzantium with the insight, knowledge and brilliance of the Renaissance, Cimabue the perfume is Dawn's own "Saffron note étude" and lends itself beautifully to the attentive caress of the student of saffron scents.


This is only skimming the surface of saffron infused perfumes, as the precious spice is so stealthy and costly, so you're encouraged to search far and wide for your own perfect saffron-including fragrance; it'd be a journey from India all the way to Faubourg Saint-Honoré but so worth it!
 

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume containing fragrance reviews, industry interviews, essays on raw materials and perfume history, a winner in Fragrantica Blog Awards and a finalist in numerous blog awards contests.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and she contributes to publications around the world.

 



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KarlekLila
KarlekLila

Absolutely wonderful article Elena. I always love your articles in particular. I'd wondered about the use of saffron in perfumery since I learned in High School that it was first discovered by the Minoans. :D

May
03
2015
Angela Agiannidou
Angela Agiannidou

I always enjoy your articles Elena, thank you for the lovely journey into the History of Saffron!

May
03
2015
bondianflavor
bondianflavor

The Ancient Egyptians referred to Re, the Sun God, as the Saffron Colored Soul, no doubt an allusion to the golden orange tinge of the rising/setting Sun.

May
02
2015
*sophi*
*sophi*

Hi Elena :)

Σε ευχαριστώ για τις ευχές...
Ναι, μένει στην Κοζάνη γιατί σπουδάζει στο Πανεπιστήμιο εκεί!

Jan
29
2014
almondbreakfast
almondbreakfast

Don't forget Charriol Royal Platinum!

It's simply one of the best!

Jan
28
2014
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Sophi,

ah, the fields themselves are a sight! Has he been there? Good luck with the studies.

@Pumpkintime,

I miss the whole range of tonic waters by Korres: their coriander, their vanilla-cinnamon (which was more spicy than sweet, almost impossible to find again), their more masculine leaning ones too….Such a pity some of those stopped.

@yvasche,

thankfully the industry is not wont on launching many saffron flecked scents, so you might find what you're after in the end. :-)

Jan
28
2014
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

K1,

as you say…Its just such a complex and pleasing scent in everything it gets into. The krokos cooperative of Kozani, here in Greece, alongside Korres, have introduced a saffron-laced herb infusion with spices and it is just lovely.

Jan
28
2014
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Jeca,

noting this down! (have not tried everything…ah, so many releases)

@Jordan,

I believe Alexander was at that point influenced by the Persian and Babylonian advisers who were consulting the stars. It looks like the blooming coincided with some astronomical phenomenon for which he was warned, though this remains to be confirmed, as with many theories surrounding Alexander. :-)
Im sure your dish turned out lovely!

Jan
28
2014
Elena Vosnaki
Elena Vosnaki

@Ani,

indeed saffron and rose pair exceedingly well. Good point! (and oud is oddly enough not interfering too much, on the contrary)

@Μatty,

your Greek is more than fine! Thank you!! Hope you come again :-)

Jan
28
2014
yvashche
yvashche

Haven't tried a saffron perfume that captures the smell of saffron, or a spice market with saffron at least present. Dislike Jo Malone Saffron, Saffran Troublant and others that have tried to capture the scent. Would like to try Aramis Calligraphy Saffron.

Jan
22
2014
pumpkintime
pumpkintime

"Saffron" Toning Body Mist by Korres is one that I treasure: much more potent and long-lasting than the term "body mist" would lead one to expect. (Sadly I think it isn't available anymore.)

Jan
22
2014
*sophi*
*sophi*

Omnia by Bvlgari is one of my best scents in which masala tea is great complemented with saffron.
I use saffron in my cooking very much 'it makes such a nice risotto...currently my son lives and studies in Kozani Greece , the best well-known area where the Greek red saffron is cultivated!

Jan
20
2014
K1
K1

Saffron+leather = I pass away! That is my top favorite combination.
But what is nice about saffron is its gastronomic smell which I can't quit: cake, tea, milk, rice, main foods, etc. Saffron makes everything luxury!

Jan
20
2014
Jordan88888888
Jordan88888888

Putting it in my crockpot slow cooker now (the stigmata not the perfumes). I have 1 gram Iran/Persia. Alex was scared of flowers blooming? It would be such an unexpected sight, legend or not and in those days superstition. as you say, was prevalent. Great to see these frescoes. Do people still have these painted inside their homes. That would be splendid.

Jan
19
2014
jeca
jeca

Thank you, dear Elena, I would add Black Saffron by Byredo, a new and very good one based on saffron ;o)

Jan
19
2014
matty64
matty64

Great article Elena, afgaristo poli! Yasoo! Sorry if my Greek spelling isn't up to par, it's been about 23 years the last time I visited Athens.

Jan
19
2014
Ani1978
Ani1978

I ABSOLUTELY ADORE SAFFRON ITS SO AMAZING TOGETHER WITH ROSE OUD ! PURE MIRACLE !

Jan
19
2014

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