There are many legends concerning the origin of saffron, the ancient Greeks for instance had two myths regarding Crocus (that is the name of the flower which saffron is made from) and this shows how important was in the past.
The oldest document proving the use of the spice is mentioned in an Egyptian papyrus of 15th century before Christ and the flower was also mentioned in the Old Testament.
At these times the flower was used as a colouring agent, in beauty treatment and in traditional medicine for many purposes.
Crocus Sativus is native to India (Asia Minor and eastern Mediterranean countries) and neighbouring Countries. It was spread in Western Europe, in particular Spain, thanks to the Arab conquerors who called it Za’hafaran.
Spanish had the commercial monopoly and the exportation was prohibited, until the 14th century, when Domenico Santucci, a monk belonging to the Spanish Inquisition, managed to take some bulbs to his native village in Abruzzo, even though its cultivation was supposed to be already practiced in Southern Italy, in particular Sicily.
Nowadays the total yearly output in the world is 178 tons (398,000 pounds), the 90% of which is in Iran and the remaining 10% is shared among India, Greece, Morocco, Spain and Italy, where the best saffron is produced.
Saffron is a spice made from the three stigmas of crocus, a perennial herb with a bulb flowering in autumn. Harvest is very particular, as it should be made very quickly and by hand before noon time, because the flowers wither easily.
Then the three stigmas contained in each blossom are removed manually, the white and the yellow parts are eliminated and just the red threads are dried to avoid fermentation and decomposition. This process needs a high skill too, because stigmas shall be kept elastic.
This long and meticulous process explains why saffron is so expensive and why it’s called red gold. To produce 1 kg (2,205 lbs) of this spice, about 100,000 flowers and 400 hrs labour are needed