Thursday, January 26, 2017

S A F F R O N / Colour of the Month #1

The waters of the Mediterranean Sea have witnessed the most fascinating trade routes of spices and colour. Saffron is a spice that is extracted from the dried stigmas of thecrocus sativus, and has always been one of the world’s most costly substances.

Read more about the fascinating story behind this magnificent colour and a bonus recipe for you to try at home.

The powerful colour

Etymology: safranum
Source: Plant
Botanical name: Crocus sativus
Colour range: Warm orange to bright yellow

A little bit of history...

 The domestication of saffron spans for more than 4,000 years, and crosses civilisations, continents and cultures. With its fragrance and bitter taste, the rich carotenoid substance has been used as a pigment, dye, seasoning, perfume, medicine, and aphrodisiac, over time. The Sumerians used this spice as an important ingredient in their magical potions and remedies, while the Persians wove saffron threads into royal carpets and funeral robes.  

Indigenous to Greece, Turkey and Iran, saffron was first domesticated as a crop in Crete. It played an important role in ancient Greco-Roman culture as a widely traded commodity across the Mediterranean. During this period of antiquity, saffron customers ranged from perfumers, physicians, cooks and dyers. This last group operated mainly in the city of Tyre, which was known for the production of the expensive dye, Tyrian Purple (extracted from the murex shellfish). In Tyre, yellow from saffron was also used to mix it with purple dyes to colour the royal robes. Saffron-based pigments and dyes were extremely valuable as saffron was considered to be the most powerful colourant able to dye liquid, skin, hair and cloth. It has the capacity to dye 150,000 times more its own weight.

In the ancient world this spice was greatly prized as a perfume, especially to scent public spaces, and daily baths. Cleopatra used saffron in her warm baths during Ptolemaic Egypt because of its cosmetic and colouring properties. For centuries saffron cultivation was either rare or non-existent but it regained popularity during the Middle Ages. Saffron based inks were used in Medieval European illuminated manuscripts to provide hues of yellow and orange and also for imitating gold leaf.

Demand for saffron increased with the Black Death in Europe since it was used for medicinal purposes. England became a major producer of saffron, which was introduced and spread to the coastal regions of eastern England in the 14th century AD. The cultivation of saffron took place in Essex in a small town with a chalk-based soil called Saffron Walden. Following the arrival of new spices and ingredients from the East and the Industrial Revolution, saffron cultivation declined in England.
Despite its replacement, saffron continues to be used as a cooking ingredient, especially for the Spanish paella. Iran, Greece, Morocco, Spain and Italy are among the main countries of Saffron production. Historically, Iran has been the most important exporter of Saffron in the world.

My experience with this colour ... 

What I love about this colour is its versatility and that is edible. Saffron filaments may be used in different ways and contexts; for cooking, dyeing, cosmetics and perfumery and also translated onto different surfaces such as paper, fabric, wood, skin and even hair.

It has a vibrant golden tone when filaments are mixed with egg 'glaire' and then applied to watercolour paper. Also a vibrant orange tone may be obtained when the filaments are ground up in a mortar with a pestle to make pigment; and then mixed with egg 'yolk' in a glass slab. Everything is about trial and error and experimentation and what works best for you. You may try this at home and create beautiful colour palettes with different shades of saffron.

Sourcing the raw material ...

I have the chance to get a high quality saffron in Italy. I source it myself or purchase it to local farmers. The quality of the saffron is seen in the length of the filament and also when making a solution.  With small amounts of the filaments a lot of colour should be released.


Making Saffron Egg Tempera


0.5 gr saffron strands

1 egg ‘glaire’ (egg white)


1 glass or plastic container of 200ml aprox

Measuring cup



Watercolour paper

1. Measure your ingredients.
2. Separate the egg yolk from the ‘glaire’ and 
keep the ‘glaire’ (egg white) in a container.
3. Add the saffron strands and soak the saffron
 overnight in glaire. You will see how the colour
 intensifies from pale yellow to a dark yellowish-orange.
4. Stir the mix of saffron and egg ‘glaire’ and it 
is ready to be used.
5. Use a paintbrush and paint on watercolour
 paper. You will see the satin and shiny finish. 

If you are interested in learning more in depth about saffronits history, origin, methods and recipes; also different techniques on how to make natural paint and the application of these onto various surfaces; you may contact us 

Read more about our workshops HERE

Photos: Kkgas, Laura Daza