Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice

Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World's Most Seductive Spice

by Pat Willard


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807050095
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication date: 04/28/2002
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Pat Willard is the author of Pie Every Day and A Soothing Broth. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Chapter One

Heaven and Earth

Go up to the ancient ruin heaps and walk around; look at the skulls of the lowly and the great. Which belongs to someone who did evil and which to someone who did good?


In the ancient valley kingdom of Sumer, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where some believe the Garden of Eden flourished, those who knew what to do with the curious flowers that bloomed after summer was forgotten would have been sanctified as priests or perfumers in service to one of the many temples or the royal court. They could have been attached to Inanna, who, as the contrary goddess of love, fertility, and (as if these were not enough to contend with) war, liked her carved images to be freshly anointed every day with opulent unguents and rare balms. Or they might have served the queen of the mountains, Ninhursag, who in a tangled bit of progeny was both the daughter of and consort to An, the king of heaven. Their union resulted in most of the other gods in the Sumerian heavens, a troublesome and demanding brew, susceptible to flattery and praise but often short-tempered and indifferent to mankind.

    When Ninhursag wasn't with An, she whiled away the hours with Enki, the water lord, keeper of the divine laws, master of wisdom — and semen. Enki seems to have been a handful for even a goddess to manage. Known for his generous hospitality, he indulged himself too much in drinking and feasting, and this brought him only trouble. A few lamentable dalliances with several goddesses ended up populating the underworld; one ill-timed, unfortunate bender with the mother goddess Nimah while she was supposed to be molding humans from clay resulted in her fashioning several flawed human beings and letting them loose upon the world.

    By all accounts, Ninhursag appeared to have been philosophical about these sorts of lapses, but she lost all patience with him when Enki proved himself a glutton and, in the span of one day, ate all of her sacred plants. Furious with him, Ninhursag banished him from the garden into the and desert, where Enki slowly began to die, the eight organs inside his body where the plants had settled weakening as he fell upon the fiery sand in withering agony. A compassionate fox, seeing how he suffered, ran to Ninhursag and persuaded her to change her mind. She took her sweetheart back into the garden and lay beside him in the cool shade of a palm tree, bringing forth from his body a healing deity for each of his afflicted parts. For this reason, when Sumerians became ill they turned to their temples, where the men and women who served the deities knew how to mix potions and rubs — thick perfumes and bracing tonics — that would give praise to the gods who ruled their lives and who, thus placated, would sooth a mere mortal's troubled body.

    Once it was discovered, saffron was used in many medicinal ways, and yet the flower was never considered worthy enough to cultivate. The Sumerians were a business-minded people, bureaucratic and methodical, who traded anything they thought they could turn a fair profit on, not only in the more primitive northern domains of Babylon and Assyria, but in the far eastern plains across the Zagros Mountains and southern seacoast, whose strange inhabitants the Sumerians regarded as just emerging from the ooze. Sumer's trading, and by extension its great preeminence long before the first pharaohs of Egypt thought to raise their pyramids — from 3800 B.C. to around 2000 B.C. — was a direct result of their skill in domesticating grains and fruit trees by fashioning irrigation channels to lead the river waters into arid fields. In the long, detailed inventories they meticulously recorded on tiny clay tablets found stacked like handfuls of bills and shopping lists among the buried ruins of their great cities, the most important commodities for sale were the barley and wheat they cooked into gruels and bread and, most especially, their much-beloved beer. But there were also acres of dates transformed into delectable sweets and a sticky, potent wine and honey stolen from wild bees and sold in huge pots. Up and down the Tigris and Euphrates plowed the Sumerians' wooden boats, brimming with flax and wool, with precious cedar wood, gold, copper, lapis lazuli, and ivory.

    Yet, in almost eighteen hundred years of business dealings, they never once parted with their profusion of saffron threads. The reason why may be discovered under the mountains of business tallies the Sumerians left behind, for here among the corporate ledgers were recipes for remedies and potions — the world's first extensive medical texts. These they shared with their less learned neighbors — such as the Lullubus, Amorites, and Semites — but the herbs and spices they used in the recipes remained wild in the fields because they were deemed useless without the divine intervention of the deities.

    The Sumerian gods and goddess were a demanding, obstinate lot, and the things they made humans do for them were often outrageous. You could sacrifice a ram and burn its body on a bed of fragrant cedar, or lay a feast of fish and bread dripping with date syrup on a golden cloth studded with rare shells from the far northern sea. You could even bring your young daughter to the temple for the priests to use as consort during the New Year ritual that assured the coming year's harvest — in which the priests would take turns being the resurrected fertility god Dumuzi while she would stand in for the goddess Inanna and offer her virginity to each and every one. You could do all this and maybe, just maybe, one of the gods would heed your pitiable plea, but you could never be sure what exactly would get their attention or how long you would hold it. And so the medicines and potions the Sumerians devised were fashioned more for their god-pleasing scent and beauty than for any of their curative powers, their worth, at best, of tenuous measure.

    Yet every illness was taken seriously and treated as a matter of concern for the entire kingdom. The spiritual and physical realms were believed to be tightly woven together, and a king's headache or a shepherd's indignant belly could very well signify the universe's crumbling demise. Such a fragile world required careful handling; nothing was left to chance and everything was called into account.

    Word of illness, great and small, was quickly conveyed to the temple, and the priest, accompanied by the doctor and a seer, would immediately set out to make a house call. As they walked along, they examined everyone and everything they passed, looking for omens and discussing their meanings. When they arrived at the sick person's house, the doctor examined the patient, the priest began to chant, and the seer questioned the family about any unusual occurrences and poked among their possessions for more clues to the misfortune. After the doctor mixed up some medicine, the seer would predict whether the cure would work. Sometimes the cure actually seemed to work; probably just as often it didn't, but if the seer had predicted a cure and none had occurred, then the patient was removed to a special room in the temple — the world's first hospital — where the walls were painted with beneficial incantations and more forceful offerings were made to the restive deities for their prompt intervention.

    Most Sumerian medicines read like perfume recipes. Sometimes the ingredients were pounded into a paste and spread over the body above the offending organ; other times they were diluted with beer and drunk. One of their most common medicines, taken to strengthen and warm the stomach, was recorded in Early Arabic Pharmacology, by Martin Levey (Brill, 1973):

Take 10 dirhams of burnt pomegranate seeds; 3 dirhams each of seed of myrtle, oak, and sumac, cumin which has been macerated in vinegar, then burnt, flour of lotus fruit, flour of sorb, burnt coriander, Nabaten carob, Syrian carob, and 2 and a half dirhams of burnt saffron and 5 dirhams of burnt aloes. All are pulverized roughly and mixed [with strong beer].

    Before the spices were added to the beer (and the Sumerians would have made sure it was one of their more potent brews), the pounded mixture was the color of a newly unfolded marigold and emitted the crisp, sharp pollen scent of a summer field. It was hoped that when the fire's heat released the aromatic nature of the seeds, bark, leaves, and flowers, the gods and goddesses would be lured to the sickroom and, thus beguiled, attend to the invalid's needs as well as Ninhursag did for Enki.

    Almost all of the recipes required the ingredients to be cooked, smashed, and pulverized — if not burned. Some were marinated for months on end, and others were kneaded with honey and sesame seeds into a thick odorous paste. One of the most beautiful recipes — both for its language and for its fragrance — was written by Tapputi-Belatekallim, a royal perfumer for the legendary king Gilgamesh, who took the throne around 2600 B.C. It is a salve she made for her king's aching legs, and it begins with her walking out at dawn across the dewy plains by the temple at Eridu to gather her ingredients.

At first light, I gather balsam from the forest, saffron hidden in the dusty grass, flowers from the river's left bank, essential oils of the fir cone, oil from the calamus root, and a young turtle's shell ground up fine. Blessed with balsam's heat, on the altar do the flowers burn, until the heavens hear our plea, then they are crushed and stirred: For seven sunrises and seven sunsets does the mixture purify, and then it is rubbed upon the limbs and while singing praise, as this is proper toward the god.

    A king, as much as his subjects, was still at the mercy of the gods' whims, and if he died, then saffron might well have been used for yet another purpose. Of all the ingredients listed in the Sumerian medical texts, only saffron comes with a dire warning that would echo down through the ages: the smell and taste were both addictive, and if it were ingested or inhaled too much, death would surely follow.

    When the king or queen died, members of the royal court dressed in their finest linen robes and wove in their hair the most elaborate golden ribbons. With a small golden cup carried in their hands, the court followed their ruler down into the burial chamber. Soldiers lined the sloping passageway; court musicians played on their jewel-encrusted harps; servants led ox-drawn wagons and chariots laden with food, drink, and weapons. The royal corpse, robed and coiffed as it had been in life, was placed on its side in a magnificently domed vault. At some signal, the royal court, along with the soldiers, musicians, and servants, raised their golden cups to their lips. Mixed with the beer or wine was something that worked swift and sure, for the bodies fell quickly, hands still grasping cups and spears, fingers fanned out across harp strings, faces unmarked by struggle or even horror, not a gold ribbon disturbed by an agonizing shudder. When all was still, someone came to slit the oxen's throats, and then the burial chamber, with all its inhabitants, was sealed for eternity under dirt and stone.

After more than a thousand years of being washed in salty river water, the Garden turned to dust. Babylon and Assyria found their young legs and overcame their weary neighbors in unmerciful battles. The great palaces were ransacked; the immense ziggurats smashed; the defeated Sumerians assimilated or sent into slavery. These new warrior kingdoms were far too busy in their fierce and often cruel expansions to regard saffron any differently from what they had been taught when they were ruled by Sumer's kings. Originality and inventiveness do not often flourish in a hurly-burly mind but favor instead a more inward gaze and leisured bent. And so it was left to the Persians, those strange people along the southern sea and across the eastern plains, to discover the flower's true worth.

    During the time when the Sumerians ruled the world, different tribes and clans from the far northern and eastern steppes wandered onto the unpromising plateau that spreads below the Zagros Mountains. No one knows why they came, but the ones who stayed were drawn together by an extraordinary capacity to look upon the flat, blistering stretch of ground and recognize the raw outlines of an earthly paradise. Certainly they were guided by a religion that was born in fire, where the soul was composed of radiant light and the promised Messiah would one day walk upon the land. Through happy accident, by the beginning of the second millennium B.C., all these divergent people settled together at once. For a very long time, they had no one ruler to consolidate them under one sword and stop the invading troops from rampaging through their early settlements. No one man or clan rose up to distract their vision with empire building. And so, gradually, they drew together, becoming singularly attune to the slim graces of this bleached and stony terrain. With intelligence and imagination, they mastered each other's native skills and gradually filled their adopted homeland with color and scent.

    At first, these people simply sought a measure of comfort in the desert kingdom they came to call Parsa. Rugs had been made for centuries before the Persians began to weave their own, but in their hands rugs turned into dazzling fields. The rugs were first made of felt — matted hair from native sheep whose tails were so long and fat that they dragged on the ground behind them like giant clubs. But felt wears quickly and falls apart, and so the Persians began to spin wool into thick threads that they then wove and knotted together. In the tattered remnants that have survived their burial in dark tombs, it has been found that even these early rugs were as lush as long grass and as beautiful as a meadow, warm in the months when the wind screamed down the mountainside and protective during the days the ground was transformed into a searing bed.

    From the beginning, though, Persian rugs were very colorful. Western tribes from India taught the Persians how to draw color from all kinds of insects, fish, plants, and even rocks. In this landscape between pale lavender mountains and salt white deserts, the deeper, more vibrant shades of blue, purple, red, and yellow were desired most. To make blue, they shredded leaves from the indigo plant; for violet, young boys and men ventured to the sea and cut from the rocks the stubborn murex shells. For reds, there were many choices: kermes (the dried bodies of various insects) or, if kermes were out of season, then madden roots could be used. And if the madden roots had all been gathered, lichen was scraped from trees and fermented into a smelly, bloody paste. For yellow, there were several possibilities as well: various berries, pomegranate rinds, and wild plums. But if the most lively yellow was desired, one that yielded all the brilliance of the noonday sun, then only the saffron crocus would do. So much was it coveted — so important was this shade to the rug makers — that, for the first time, whole tracts of barely workable land were cleared of scrub, the hard, dry soil cracked open, and millions of saffron corms harvested from the wild were carefully transplanted in neat and narrow rows.

    Once the vapors from the rug makers' hot dye baths were inhaled, it was only a matter of time before the Persians found other uses for the tiny crocus threads. In a hot, sweaty country, what was most attractive about saffron after its property as a dye was its scent. Its clean sharpness, clinging lightly to everything it touches, as alluring and elegant as a thin veil, would have been hard to resist. Soon, saffron was being scattered across the bed at night, freshening sheets and pillows, inducing a tranquil sleep. Persians swore that a cup of saffron tea relieved their melancholy; a pouch of it worn on a string around the neck and dangling above the heart would enkindle love. During the burning months when hot breezes brushed across the shadeless plateau, saffron and sandalwood were stirred into water that was left in a bowl beside the front stoop to wash the dust and heat from parched bodies.

    And often saffron was planted in secluded gardens, not only for a private ready crop but also for the unassuming, guileless charm of its petite flowers. In this long period of quiet advancement, while the kingdom bided its time, learning as it watched the ever-rumbling turmoil that wreaked havoc in neighboring countries, Persians concentrated on making their lives more comfortable and meaningful — pursuing pleasures that, in fifteen hundred years would influence, even conquer, the rest of the world. Not least of these pleasures were the gardens they created. The Persians called them pairidaezas — small paradises, framed by the walls of individual houses and laid out in orderly geometric patterns to bring balance and succor into a harsh world. One of nature's paradoxes is that the most lush and perfumed flowers are often happiest in the driest, sunniest, soil, and in the small oases and thin strips of fertile land that dotted the countryside, roses, lilies, and jasmine grew naturally in enormous profusion. Behind their garden walls, the Persians transplanted these flowers within a precisely plumed box sketched with lemon and pomegranate trees, the flowers in their tidy rows separated by tall, thin spikes of cypress, framed by the graceful arch of musky wild grasses and bordered by irises in the summer and saffron in the fall.

    Surrounded by saffron, then, how long could it have been before an ingenious cook tossed it into a bowl? It would have been, of course, a royal cook, someone who prepared food not only to survive but also to enjoy, someone who would consider the possibility of infusing scent and color into a pallid cuisine a magnificent accomplishment. The Persian royal family, with time enough to meditate on such matters, expected their food to be more than just flavorful. Why, they asked, couldn't their meals be as fragrant and beautiful as everything else in life? For if they could — if, for instance, a routine plate of warm eggs or rice could suddenly beguile the nose and eyes — would not hunger then permeate all the senses, and in such a heightened state, would not satisfying such a hunger be a most rare experience, beyond the reaches of what a warm egg or bowl of rice had ever satisfied before? And if this was so, would not eating be transformed into something more — into a perfect communion of almost religious intensity?

    Soon enough, aristocrats in the court followed suit, and it was not long before lower cooks and insignificant servants were gathering their own saffron to stir into their family's meals. In the twilight cool of the day's end, on a soft rug spread under a tree in the garden, royal and common families alike would settle around small bowls filled with delicacies — almond-sweetened lamb, chicken tart with pomegranate juice, figs so ripe that their tender, softened flesh seemed about to burst through its leathery skins. Thick goat milk was sharpened with mint, and the rice gleamed like amber, each grain plump with a melodious sweetness. Far away from the aggressive strife that prevailed in surrounding kingdoms, the Persians ate with slow, deliberate relish, pausing to breath the jasmine-scented air, to listen to the birds settle for the night in the upper branches of the almond trees, to appreciate in the murmur of their private paradises this exquisite union they had wrought between earth and heaven.

Excerpted from Secrets of saffron by PAT WILLARD. Copyright © 2001 by Pat Willard. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Heart of the Matter1
Heaven and Earth10
The Artist's Palette21
Travels with the Scholar and the Merchant41
The Invading Hordes61
For God and King75
Death Was Meant for This96
The Making of a Town110
Fare Thee Well132
Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafran147
The Saffron Fields of Brooklyn185
A Short Guide to Buying and Using Saffron200

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