This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Meet Saffron, the World’s Most Expensive Spice, first released on January 16, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: One morning last June, Cynthia and I took a train to Chelmsford, which is a city just east of London, in Essex.
CYNTHIA GRABER: We got out of the station. And we looked around for a while until we found a man we’d never met before. We piled into his car. And we had no clue where he was taking us.
DAVID SMALE: Oh it’s—you know, it’s not a massive secret as such. It’s just that people think, oh, there’s a field of saffron we can go and have some and, you know, make loads of money or whatever.
TWILLEY: People think that because saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. And saffron is what this episode is all about. It’s our most bling episode yet.
GRABER: You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And although we can’t tell you exactly where we went, this episode we’re chatting with a couple different saffron growers to understand why these little red strands are so expensive.
GRABER: We also explore the case of the disappearing saffron. Why was England the center of saffron production in the Middle Ages, and why’d they stop growing it?
TWILLEY: And why might eating too much saffron give you a serious case of the giggles? Hint: it’s not just the shock of spending that much money.
MARGARET SKINNER: For us, probably the important thing about saffron is it’s probably the most expensive spice in the world. It’s retail value is estimated at around $5,000 a pound—$19 a gram.
TWILLEY: For reference, gold is currently trading at 42 bucks a gram, so saffron is only worth half its weight in gold. But that still makes one of the most expensive foods in the world—only things like truffles and caviar are really in the same league. Oh, and that, by the way—that was Margaret Skinner at the University of Vermont.
GRABER: And saffron is definitely the most expensive spice—most spices are around like five, ten bucks a pound. The second most expensive spice in the world is vanilla. You can find a pound of vanilla on Amazon for $600. Saffron is more than eight times that price.
TWILLEY: So what exactly is this fabulously expensive substance?
PAT WILLARD: Saffron is the little threads that are in a crocus.
GRABER: Pat Willard wrote a book called Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice. And those threads that she mentioned—those are from one particular kind of crocus known as, unsurprisingly, the saffron crocus.
TWILLEY: It’s a little purple crocus, like a normal one. But now imagine an entire field of purple flowers, purple as far as the eye can see, like a wash of lavender extending to the horizon.
GRABER: And it’s not just beautiful to look at—these fields of flowers have an incredible smell, too. It’s a little musky, a little honeyed.
TWILLEY: And it’s all the more gorgeous and intoxicating because these flowers are blooming against a backdrop of brown. Because the saffron crocus tends to grow in super arid parts of the world.
GRABER: And the flowers bloom in the fall, when there’s almost nothing else growing around them.
TWILLEY: Today, by far the most saffron comes from the sun-baked fields of Iran. But there is some mystery about where saffron originally comes from. Dave, who grows saffron in Essex at an undisclosed location—he says it comes from Greece.
SMALE: Because there’s a place called there, it’s Krokus, with a K. So we think saffron probably originated there as well. You can find still wild saffron growing in Greece.
GRABER: Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani—he works with Margaret Skinner at the University of Vermont—he says there are some other theories.
ARASH GHALEHGOLABBEHBAHANI: In some part, people believe that it comes from India, south of Asia. Some people believe that the origin of this crop is from Persia or Iran. And the most strong theory or scenario says that it comes from the Mediterranean region. As an Iranian, I like to say it comes from Iran.
TWILLEY: Basically, choose your favorite theory, because we don’t really know where saffron comes from. The earliest documentation of saffron comes from ancient Sumeria, which is a civilization that was based in what is now southern Iraq, about 5,000 years ago. The Sumerians gathered wild saffron, and they made a gold-colored beer with it. They also offered it to their gods, and they sold it to their neighbors.
GRABER: By about 4,000 years ago, there were ancient Persians in the general region as well, and they fell in love with saffron, too. They also loved its golden color.
WILLARD: So they started using it as paint. You can see it in their—there were traces in their funeral processions and in cave art.
GRABER: Saffron dye brightened the ancient Persians’ thick rugs. And they also used it in perfume.
TWILLEY: Pat says that the ancient Persians cooked with saffron too. So, in turn, did the ancient Greeks.
GRABER: And from Greece, saffron use kept spreading West. People all around the Mediterranean eventually ended up relying on saffron to color and flavor rice and broths and breads. Some of those dishes might be familiar to you all today—risotto in Italy, bouillabaisse in southern France, paella in Spain…
TWILLEY: But even back in the early, early days, with the ancient Sumerians and Greeks, saffron cost a pretty penny. So it was mostly enjoyed by the elites.
GRABER: One of the reasons saffron has always been super pricey is that it’s incredibly finicky. You have to pluck the flowers and carefully remove the three stigmas whole, totally intact, from the center of the flower. And then dry those super fine threads while not letting them crumble. This is really painstaking, time-consuming work.
WILLARD: There’s nothing that has changed since the time that the Persians started using it because machines can’t pick it, it’s such a delicate process. So it’s all done by hand and that’s pretty much what gives it its mystery but also gives its expense.
TWILLEY: So you might be thinking well, sure, it can’t be harvested by machines—that makes sense of why it’s so expensive now. But it’s not like there were combine harvesters in ancient Greece. Everything was being picked by hand. So why was it so expensive then?
GRABER: It is still more fiddly than most other spices. Some herbs like oregano and thyme and rosemary, you just pick them. Other spices, like cumin, you dry the plants and then beat them to get the seeds out. So, it’s always been a lot more work to carefully remove all those delicate little threads to harvest saffron than to harvest other spices.
TWILLEY: And, because you only use those three little red stigma at the center of the flower, and they weigh almost nothing, you have to pick something like 70,000 flowers to get just one pound of saffron.
GRABER: But Pat thinks there’s more to it than that. She says saffron’s allure and value comes partly because it’s like Midas. It turns everything gold.
TWILLEY: The ancient Persians had figured this out long ago—they were using it to dye their precious rugs. But Pat says that saffron wasn’t just used to turn fabric yellow. The Minoans—that’s another ancient civilization based on the Mediterranean island of Crete—they used saffron like St. Tropez.
WILLARD: In ceremonies, they would just color their skin and it became kind of this rosy glow for them.
GRABER: The Egyptians also loved it as a particularly golden self-tanner.
WILLARD: There’s a story that Cleopatra would bathe not only in milk—that’s the big legend—but also in saffron. And again it would make her body just this glowing, tannish gold.
TWILLEY: And then the hero of my favorite saffron-as-beauty-product story: Alexander the Great. Saffron was basically like Touch of Gold for this legendary Greek conqueror.
WILLARD: The whole idea was that he was a god and he had blond hair. And if you have blond hair and you wash it in saffron, it just heightens the color and it becomes this golden color. So as he was getting more and more famous in the legends and conquering the world, he would use it as a way to make himself look more and more like a god.
TWILLEY: So basically, saffron turned everything gold, which is part of why it was pretty much worth its weight in gold. And like everything valuable, saffron has also always been a target for fraud—sellers would bulk out their precious saffron with other, cheaper spices that also turn things yellow. Turmeric was one of the main ones; red marigold petals; even the inner threads of lily flowers—they substituted anything that could give that golden color for less. But, of course, the color wasn’t as gorgeous, and the flavor was just all wrong.
GRABER: In medieval times, the city of Nuremberg had become one of the biggest markets for trading goods from the Mediterranean all over Europe. So it was also the center of the saffron trade. And because this saffron fraud was so rampant, one of the very first laws passed in Nuremberg when the city first became independent was called the Safranschou. It was passed in the 1300s, and it governed the inspection and purity of saffron.
WILLARD: And they were extremely strict about it and they would go about each day making sure that—go from, you know, cart to cart and stall to stall, tasting each one, making sure that it was OK. And if you were found to be not selling it right, the conviction rate was just tremendous apparently, and the punishment was very strict. They not only hung you but, you know, chopped off your head. And then there’s these accounts that I heard that—one particularly sorrowful one of a widow with children selling a small bit of saffron and they buried her alive with the saffron. And that wasn’t an uncommon thing. You got buried with your imitation saffron.
TWILLEY: So yeah, medieval Europeans took their saffron seriously. And they weren’t the only ones. The people growing saffron throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East—they were pretty serious about making sure no one else could grow it.
WILLARD: Because saffron was so cherished in the Middle East and you know, the Holy Lands particularly, they had a law that you couldn’t take it out of the country. And if you were taking out of the country, the penalties were quite stiff—you could get killed, you could get your hand cut off.
GRABER: But there were some European warriors who were willing to risk their hands or their lives for the glory of spice gold. The Crusaders marched to the Holy Land repeatedly over a couple hundred years. They were, you know, killing infidels like my people. But they also were being introduced to the flavors and smells and riches of the region. And, like everyone else, they became infatuated with saffron.
WILLARD: So there’s stories of the knights hiding it in the hilt of their swords. And one of the cool stories, and it’s sort of been verified, of, not a crusader coming in, but of a pilgrim, after the the holy lands were secure enough to travel, bringing it home in a staff, his walking staff, and starting to cultivate it in England.
TWILLEY: And the English royals—they fell in love with it the same way the same way Alexander the Great did. Henry VIII apparently used it to dye his tights a glorious gold. Which he probably wore while he was dining on one of that era’s most stupendous dishes—the golden swan.
WILLARD: Actually one of my favorite recipes is this swan recipe. So it’s sort of like a turducken, you know—they’ve kept stuffing more and more little animals into the swan. And then they would coat—make tons of coating of saffron on the white feathers until it really glowed. And they would carry this in as a ceremonial and land it before the king and it was the dish.
GRABER: Nobody knows exactly how saffron first came to be grown in England. Maybe it was one of those pilgrims or crusaders. Maybe not. But by the 1500s, the town of Chepyng Walden in England—that means Walden Market—it had become such a center of saffron that the name of the town was changed to Saffron Walden.
SMALE: Saffron Walden was the biggest exporter of saffron in the world. And in the texts it does say it was the best saffron in the world, but they would say that, wouldn’t they?
TWILLEY: That is David Smale. You heard him right at the beginning of the show. He was the man who picked Cynthia and me up at a train station in Essex and took us to a secret location.
SMALE: Where we’re standing now—people can work out where we’re going, can’t they—but we are literally under seven miles from the driest spot in England. So we’re a little bit out of Saffron Walden obviously here, but not giving anything away.
GRABER: Dave is growing saffron in England today—that’s why the site is so secret. And he’s growing it here because this was the epicenter of saffron internationally, hundreds of years ago.
SMALE: They were called saffron gardens, which we still use the terminology for this, probably because they were never that big. So they would have been run by families or small farmsteads really. Literally everywhere—it was grown everywhere, in the churchyard, even—stuff like that. So at that time of year, you know, you read things in the texts that the whole town was awash with purple petals and stuff. So it must’ve been amazing.
TWILLEY: So remember how we told you that saffron likes to grow in arid lands? Right. So England is not typically considered particularly arid. In fact, my homeland has a little bit of a reputation for being just the tiniest bit soggy. But Saffron Walden—like Dave said, it’s in the driest part of the UK. And besides, Dave thinks that whole saffron-loves-dry-conditions thing is overrated.
SMALE: There’s a bit of mythology about saffron. If you look round the world now, then you think it’s a crop that should be grown in very infertile soil and up in the mountains or this stuff. But I think it’s more—from my experience, it’s that they grow it there because nothing else will grow there and it’s a good cash crop. It is very valuable. So for someone in Kashmir who can’t really grow anything else in the field and the land up in the mountains, they’ll grow saffron, because it will grow, and it’s a great crop that earns a lot of money. But, actually, when you put it into fertile soil in England, it suddenly takes on the flavor of the soils and it suddenly becomes an amazing flavor and it’s a lot sweeter than most saffron.
GRABER: This must have been what folks in medieval England figured out. After all, Saffron Walden was the center of all things saffron for a couple hundred years. But then saffron growing and exporting died out.
TWILLEY: And we mean totally died out. No one in England was left growing saffron by the nineteenth century. Why?
SMALE: Money, labor costs.
TWILLEY: Dave explained. England industrialized in the 1800s. People could earn more working in those dark satanic mills—the new factories and coal mines of the Industrial Revolution. They’d earn more than they could in the fields, even if those fields were filled with saffron.
SMALE: Even if you go to the other side of world and ship it over here, it ends up a lot cheaper than you can grow here. Simple as that, I think. Yeah, very simple economics.
GRABER: And today it’s still cheaper to grow saffron in Iran and import it into England than to grow it here. But, um, Dave just said the economics don’t make any sense. So why is he growing saffron?
SMALE: There’s a good question. I wanted to grow something. I always have done. I mean, my family in Devon and Cornwall used to grow carnations.
GRABER: And Dave was getting a little antsy in his day job.
SMALE: After working in the industry—geophysics industry—for a while, I decided I wanted to grow something.
TWILLEY: Dave knew that saffron used to be grown in the area—I mean, the town is named after it. So he figured someone must still know how to do it. Like, maybe the guys at the agricultural college up the road.
SMALE: And I phoned them up and got passed around from one or two people and they all said to me, “No, dunno mate, no one knows anything about that. We don’t grow that over here anymore.” One of them said, “We don’t grow saffron over here, it died out hundreds of years ago.” So I thought, okay, right.
GRABER: Dave had to kind of figure it out for himself. First he had to track down saffron bulbs. Which he did. Then he planted those bulbs—they’re actually called saffron corms—he planted them in his back garden. And, you know, the corms flowered. It was looking pretty good.
SMALE: And then next year when I went back, all the corms had disappeared. So. And still to this day I don’t know why.
TWILLEY: Dave’s leading theory on the great saffron disappearance is that the corms were eaten by animals.
SMALE: Saffron corms are supposed to be very nutty and very nice, which is why all the animals love them. A bit annoying, but…
GRABER: So he asked a commercial bulb grower for advice. The person didn’t grow saffron, but did still have a recommendation for how to keep pesky animals away.
SMALE: Oh, if you soak the bulbs in paraffin then the rats and stuff won’t eat them because they don’t like the taste.
GRABER: Paraffin is kerosene. Soaking the bulbs in kerosene? Does not sound great.
SMALE: So I tried an experimental patch of that. Didn’t like the idea of it but, you know, you’ve got to try these things. So I did it in pots, I think. Anyway that didn’t work. They didn’t even grow, didn’t even flower, so it killed the bulbs and so I went on, you know. Yeah. You slowly learn by trial and error really, yeah.
TWILLEY: Currently, Dave’s precious saffron is protected from all would-be thieves by an electric fence. He swears it’s not intended to shock humans. Just those pesky rabbits.
GRABER: If Dave is sounding a little nutty himself—well, he agrees. He’s a little mad about saffron. But it really is kind of amazing how he’s managed to read every random bit of information he can find about saffron growing. He’s consulted with the Dutch—they’re experts in growing tulip bulbs. It’s kinda close.
TWILLEY: He even found a random box of medieval saffron information in the local library.
SMALE: It was called Krokus sativus which is the Latin name for it. So, they just left me in there for a few hours with this box full, which had some clippings in it, stuff in there. I found a photocopy of a medieval manuscript, about 1500 or 1600 or something.
TWILLEY: The archival materials fortunately confirmed most of Dave’s own trial and error findings about how close together to plant the bulbs and how deep they should be in the soil and all sorts of other things that nobody that was actually still alive in England seemed to know. Long story short, it’s been a process. Dave started experimenting in his back garden fourteen years ago, and it took him nearly a decade to get to the point where he could sell his saffron commercially.
GRABER: Last year, Dave grew a couple hundred grams of saffron. I’m going to be honest, that doesn’t sound like a huge amount. And it’s not. He grew enough for about 200 packages that he sells. This year, he has more land and he’s planted even more saffron bulbs. But Dave’s English saffron operation is still pretty tiny. Iran sells about two TONS of the stuff. Dave sold 0.0002 tons last year. No real competition yet. Dave hasn’t totally given up his day job, he still works as a geophysicist. Saffron only totally takes over his life a few times a year.
TWILLEY: Such as the harvest season. The saffron crocus starts flowering in late September and keeps going through to early December
SMALE: It’s normally about six weeks but it can be a bit longer, but it has a peak period of about 12 days where it goes absolutely mad.
GRABER: One field might produce nearly half a million flowers.
SMALE: Oh, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s just purple every day. Even if you picked all the field so there’s no flowers left at the end of the day, the next day you come back, it’d be full again. Which is … well, either depressing or really great. It depends which way you look at it.
TWILLEY: Depressing because half a million flowers might gorgeous to look at, but it also represents hours and hours and hours of backbreaking work.
SMALE: I can pick about 300 an hour. But a newbie croker, we call them, they won’t get anywhere near that, would they?
GRABER: That’s just the picking. Then they have to carefully remove the stigmas. If for some reason you’re nearby during harvest season, you might be able to recognize the crokers, as they’re called, by the color of their fingers.
SMALE: Completely purple and yellow. So yellow where you’ve accidentally touched—you’re not supposed to touch that bit obviously. But then purple because all the dye from the petals all leaks. So you have—they’re called “croker fingers.”
TWILLEY: That part is not as pretty as it sounds: the purple stain makes the tip of the crokers’ fingers look like they’re in the final stages of dropping off from gangrene. But it’s not all freaky fingers and lower back pain—there are some perks to the job.
SMALE: The smell is the best smell you would ever smell in your life. When you smell dry saffron, which we can do it a bit, it’s obviously got its distinctive smell and it’s beautiful and it’s quite heady. We get actually our people—you know you get bit intoxicated when they’re packing stuff and you have to get fresh air every so often because it is a narcotic in big quantities so…
GRABER: This is a fact, people. Dave is not making it up. Saffron can be a potent narcotic. A little expensive for a high, yes. But some scientists are studying its mood-boosting effects in the lab.
TWILLEY: Weirder still, it turns out that medieval nuns were hooked on saffron, back in the day. That’s where we’re going next, but first we want to tell you about a couple of our sponsors this episode.
TWILLEY: After we’d walked the saffron fields with Dave, he took us to his saffron stash.
SMALE: So it’s all packed up, really lovely. My saffron never sees the light of day until it’s sold. Here, have a whiff of that.
GRABER: Oh my gosh.
SMALE: That’s triple wrapped so it’s not even—you’re not smelling loose saffron.
TWILLEY: I reckon that would make me pretty sprightly.
GRABER: Am I going to get intoxicated if I keep smelling?
SMALE: Yes. That’s double-packed in bags so that’s—and that hasn’t been opened so…
TWILLEY: It’s in.
SMALE: In this bag and then it’s another bag. Ziploc bags.
TWILLEY: And then another bag.
SMALE: And then this thing which is airtight.
GRABER: And it’s still so strong. And the honey that you’re talk—I can totally smell that honey scent.
TWILLEY: Cynthia and I wanted to sit and sniff Dave’s saffron all day.
TWILLEY: That’s really intense.
GRABER: I’m just going to sit here. Can you just leave me here with some saffron to keep smelling?
TWILLEY: So we wanted to know, what exactly is behind saffron’s amazing, happiness-inducing smell?
ADRIAN LOPRESTI: The main constituents in saffron are what we call—there’s saffronal, there’s crocetin, and crocin are the compounds in saffron that have been believed to kind of have the antidepressant effects. So those components seem to be the most important bits and they’re responsible for the color and the flavor and the taste.
GRABER: Adrian Lopresti is a clinical psychologist and researcher at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. And he got interested in saffron…
LOPRESTI: Because my area of interest is looking at lifestyle and nutritional treatments for mental-health disorders and so that’s when I saw some of the research with regards to saffron.
TWILLEY: Pat Willard—she’s the author of Secrets of Saffron—she told us that saffron has a long history of being used as a medicine. For all sorts of things, but, mostly, as a remedy against melancholy.
WILLARD: And if you were just terribly depressed you would get these—they used to make these little pills for it—that was saffron and mixed with molasses. So, you know, here’s the ancient kind of Prozac.
GRABER: These descriptions of medieval Prozac have inspired quite a few scientists today. Adrian reviewed a dozen scientific studies on saffron’s antidepressant effects.
LOPRESTI: And the researchers showed—compared to placebo, they were all very very positive, so it was more effective than a placebo. Then there were other studies comparing it to two antidepressants and those ones were really interesting. Those were very positive as well, so what was found was that they were as effective as the antidepressants. Worked just as well, just as quickly but with less side effects.
TWILLEY: But Adrian says no one knows exactly how saffron works, although there are several potential ways it could be boosting your mood. So one way is that inflammation in your body seems to break down serotonin. You’ve probably heard of serotonin—it’s a chemical that nerve cells release and one of the things it does is to transmit messages in your brain. Many common antidepressants work by boosting serotonin uptake.
GRABER: There is a lot of debate about what causes depression and the effects of different chemical levels in the brain. But Adrian mentioned three major compounds in saffron, the ones that make saffron smell so good — those also are really great at reducing inflammation. Which he said might then help boost serotonin.
TWILLEY: But there’s more. There are other chemicals in saffron that seem to encourage the neurons in your brain to grow, and growing neurons can apparently also boost your mood.
LOPRESTI: Yeah, and while I talk about crocin and crocetin and saffronol, there’s other constituents within saffron that probably impact on mood but they just haven’t been investigated yet. To really try to understand how they all kind of work together, it’s still early days yet.
GRABER: But some of these compounds, like all good things—they can be toxic at high doses.
LOPRESTI: There is the danger of kind of consuming, you know, too much. I think you need to have—I think it’s about five grams, which is, you know, you’d probably go broke before you could overdose on that amount of saffron.
TWILLEY: The other thing, of course, is like all plant-derived medicines, the potency of each chemical in each particular flower— that will vary. So Adrian always uses saffron extract standardized in capsule form in his research.
GRABER: There are already antidepressants on the market, and many people use them to help treat depression. So why bother? Adrian says one of the main reasons he’s excited about saffron is that it doesn’t appear to have any major side effects. And the pharma anti-depressants often do.
TWILLEY: And then there are people who don’t want to take pharmaceuticals and would be more open to a plant-derived drug. Adrian’s next study is actually looking at the effectiveness of saffron as an antidepressant in teens for exactly this reason—there are parents who don’t want to have their kids on conventional pharmaceutical antidepressants.
GRABER: Adrian told us about a bunch of studies he still wants to do. But he feels pretty good about saffron. Plus, at the levels that he’s studying, you can even afford it.
LOPRESTI: So I’d be quite confident now to recommend it as a antidepressant for people with mild to moderate depression who may be reluctant to take pharmaceuticals. So I think there’s enough evidence out there to use it as a treatment.
TWILLEY: Adrian thinks that future research is only going to confirm saffron’s potency—there are some promising animal studies already that show that saffron boosts dopamine too, the feel-good neurotransmitter.
LOPRESTI: So yeah, possibly taking saffron in maybe higher doses can potentially really lift mood.
GRABER: And this ability of saffron to make people perky? That also has a long history. Apparently some women in medieval Europe were really getting their spirits lifted by saffron.
VOLKER SCHIER: Each nun must have had a little stash of saffron—I don’t know how they kept it—just to you know take it if you needed it as a stimulant. I always compare it with a cup of coffee that they didn’t have. So perhaps it was roughly their equivalent to that.
TWILLEY: That is Volker Schier. He’s a musicologist in the medieval studies department at Arizona State University.
SCHIER: And one of my topics is medieval nuns, late medieval nuns, and that’s how I got into saffron.
GRABER: About twenty years ago, Volker and one of his colleagues discovered a cache of hidden, never-before-seen letters from a woman who joined a nunnery in Bavaria in 1516.
SCHIER: Her name is Katarina Lemmel. She was from Nuremberg, entered the monastery of Meihingen in the Ries. And she was a businesswoman in her first life and she came from a family that traded in saffron.
TWILLEY: In fact, her family was one of just a handful that controlled the saffron trade in Europe. And Katerina’s letters are full of saffron. She writes to her cousin Hans, who ran the family business.
SCHIER: And she orders huge amount of saffron —sometimes like a kilo a year for the monastery.
GRABER: That is a crazy amount of saffron. Volker says in today’s money it would have been about $10-15,000’s worth. And there were only fifty or sixty nuns living there!
SCHIER: And one of the things she writes is that they need saffron during Lent. And she writes pretty much verbatim that when they have to sing and pray a lot they need saffron to, yeah, make it easier for them.
TWILLEY: The thing you need to understand about medieval nuns is that weren’t just singing and chanting and praying for fun. Or even just for their personal salvation. It was their job. They were being paid to sing and pray for hours and hours a day, and even through the night.
SCHIER: You were supposed to sing as a nun: for everyone, for society, for donors, for diseased. And you were a professional singer. You were a professional prayer.
GRABER: The donors and the nuns both seemed to believe that taking a pinch of saffron as they sang helped them to sing longer and more intensely.
TWILLEY: But, to be fair, it wasn’t just saffron. The other thing you have to understand about medieval nuns is that they were off their heads on a whole bunch of different substances.
SCHIER: I mean, you have to see that nuns mainly drank alcohol, like everybody in the Middle Ages. So per day they had typically two or three liters of beer or wine, depending on where they were. They ate other active ingredients such as nutmeg. High quantities of nutmeg will also have some effect on you. They might have eaten hemp soup in addition. And they consumed saffron. So it was quite a mix of things, and I always call it like singing under the influence.
GRABER: So these nuns might have been, you know, pretty high as they were singing. And now, imagine the scene in the cloister.
SCHIER: If you ever sang in a choir you know that standing together with many other people and singing communally and loudly and if it’s good music—it’s getting better. You can’t do that alone and you get feedback at that moment and you feel great, you feel good. It does have an effect. And also the surrounding you are in has an effect. Think about day and night, light, darkness. In monasteries you sang at times when it was pitch dark outside. Like when they got you up in the middle of the night to sing the night service. There was the flickering of candles. And when you walk the cloister and you sing as a group, you walk synchronized, you sing synchronized, you sync yourself with a group and the acoustic changes and it’s awesome. It’s really something that was very, very impressive.
TWILLEY: Of course, we’ll never really know how it felt to be a medieval nun, high on saffron and a variety of other psychoactive substances, fasting and chanting in the dark. But Volker was curious. He wanted to see how this medley would affect a group of contemporary choristers. He got as far as asking their musical director.
SCHIER: But he declined. He thought that was a little too much to try out.
GRABER: Volker told us that the nuns weren’t just getting high on all that saffron. They did use it in the kitchen, too. Katarina’s letters included mentions of saffron soup. Saffron rice and porridge were also really common at the time. So they were enjoying the flavor of saffron as well.
TWILLEY: This use of saffron—to color rice in a paella or a risotto or even in just a broth—it’s still common in continental Europe today. But not in England, where much of Europe’s saffron was once grown. Like we said, Saffron Walden was once the center of saffron production in the world, but somehow that’s left almost no trace in my national cuisine.
SMALE: There are recipes if you look in the texts. I mean there are Easter cakes made with saffron and stuff. But it’s just people have lost the, you know, how to do it.
GRABER: Dave’s trying to reintroduce saffron to the British diet and not just in Mediterranean food like paella. He’s been working with a local distiller to make saffron gin—it’s quite tasty. And a local chocolatier in Saffron Walden uses threads of Dave’s saffron in one of their most popular truffles.
TWILLEY: Which we can report is also very delicious. But the main thing that Dave wants British people to understand is not to be afraid of saffron. You don’t have to take out an overdraft and throw giant handfuls of saffron into a dish in order to savor its unique taste. Instead, he says, just take a few threads and infuse them properly.
SMALE: The best way of doing it really, I suppose, is to put it in a liquid which is warm or hot. Not boiling but just off.
GRABER: It doesn’t have to be water—in fact, something with fat, like oil or cream, is better because it keeps infusing after it cools down. Water doesn’t work quite as well. Alcohol will work, too.
SMALE: The best way to do it—which I’ve never seen anyone else saying this but it’s definitely true—is to put it in a ramekin and infuse it in a very small amount of liquid. And you’ll get a lovely color almost immediately coming out and then cover that with a saucer and just leave it basically—at least two hours, preferably overnight.
TWILLEY: That way, Dave says, you extract all of the flavor and you don’t lose any of the scent. By the end, the threads should just be a pale ghostly white.
GRABER: Dave says that you can infuse cream and then pour it over fish right before you serve it. That’s one of his favorite dishes.
TWILLEY: Or make your own saffron-infused oil to drizzle over all sorts of things.
GRABER: I have to say, I had never been remotely interested in cooking with saffron before this episode—it seemed like something expensive that wasn’t so transformative. But now I’ve smelled it and practically gotten high on the amazing scent and really tasted it in a more simple dish where the saffron flavor shines through, and I can tell you, it is worth it. A simple saffron risotto is amazing. I’m converted.
TWILLEY: I was already a fan of saffron—it’s this grassy, kind of caramel flavor that you just can’t get from anything else. But what I’m excited about is this saffron revival—Dave’s insane quest to bring saffron back to England has already inspired a couple of other growers.
GRABER: And England isn’t the only slightly surprising hotspot for saffron. Earlier in the show you heard from Margaret Skinner, she runs an ag lab at the University of Vermont. They’re now growing saffron there. It all started a few years ago—Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani moved to Burlington from Iran.
GHALEHGOLABBEHBAHANI: I could realize Vermont is really cold. And is not a comfortable place to for some conventional crop over the winter. And also I knew that this crop has a good resistance to the cold weather. Because we have some cold nights in deserts in Iran. So the clue comes from that point.
TWILLEY: So, over coffee, Arash suggested to Margaret that maybe saffron would grow in Vermont.
SKINNER: And I have to admit, somewhat embarrassingly that my first response was, that’s a crazy—well, that’s a stupid idea. But then I went back into my office and I thought about it a little bit more. And we do other research looking, working with growers on production of vegetables in high tunnels. And it was sort of then that I started thinking, hmmm, maybe saffron is something that could be integrated into current cultural practices. And that’s sort of where it took off from there.
TWILLEY: Margaret and Arash have been trialing their New England saffron for a couple of years now, and their yields are actually really good.
GRABER: And growing saffron could make economic sense for Vermont farmers, too. It blooms in the fall and early winter when they’re basically done harvesting other crops.
SKINNER: The tomatoes are finished. They might still have some, you know, winter squash or some of those things but most of the field work is done. And so in many respects that makes it ideal.
TWILLEY: And, of course, saffron sells for a lot more money than winter squash.
SKINNER: And I’m not saying that saffron is going to be a golden goose for them. But it may be something that will contribute to the overall economic viability of these small farms.
TWILLEY: So, yeah, growing and harvesting saffron is still a lot of work. But for Dave in England and Margaret and Arash in Vermont, the benefits are worth it. And anyway, Arash told us, it’s not really all that bad.
GHALEHGOLABBEHBAHANI: Whenever you have interact with this beautiful, beautiful flower with this really nice smell I think is not really difficult. So it’s beautiful job—its a nice thing to do.
GRABER: Arash actually sent us some recordings this fall when he harvested those purple fields of saffron. Stick around and you’ll hear him after the credits!
TWILLEY: Huge thanks this episode to David Smale of English Saffron. We’ve got links and photos of him and his saffron fields online, as well as how to get hold of his saffron and his saffron gin for yourself. Thanks also to Pat Willard, author of Secrets of Saffron, to Adrian Lopresti, clinical psychologist and researcher at Murdoch University in Perth, and to Volker Schier, musicologist and medievalist at Arizona State University. We’ve got links to their books and papers on our site too.
GRABER: This episode, we want to personally thank our newest supporters at the $10 per episode or more level: Ali Punzalan, Blanche Teyssier, Tanya Hansen, Christian Driesen, who listens while he trains for the AIDS Lifecycle race, and Patrick Dailey, who uses our episodes in his teaching syllabus. We love you very, very much and we’re sorry if we mangled your names. If you’re a sustaining supporter of the show—that’s $9 a month on our website or $5 an episode through Patreon—look forward to a super cool newsletter of extras, including the contemporary drink that Volker Schier recommends trying to get a sense of how those medieval nuns might have felt.
TWILLEY: And finally, thanks to Margaret Skinner and Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani of the University of Vermont. We’ll leave you today with Arash and his wife, Agrin Devari, harvesting saffron flowers in the high tunnel, plucking out the stigma, and drying them in the oven.
AGRIN DEVARI: Good morning, it’s Monday morning, we are at Saffron Research Center and heading up to saffron high tunnel to pick up the flowers.
GHALEHGOLABBEHBAHANI: Okay, we are in the saffron high tunnel now. Just a few flowers we have because it’s like, blooming season is getting over and so we are going to pick some of those flowers right now.
DEVARI: The next step is to separate the yellow stamen from the red stigma and purple petals of the flowers. Now is the dehydration process, we put the stamen and stigma separately on some trays that we already prepared for this purpose. And then we are going to put those trays in the oven for one hour.