Michael Viney: Spices worth more than their weight in gold

Another Life: In ancient times black pepper was used as dowry, tax and rent

Among the more obscure deals concluded in Qatar in advance of the World Cup was the purchase of some 200 tonnes of Iranian saffron for $300,000, or about €285,000. It would be nice to think of it glowing in the beds of rice on millions of plates of majboos, the slow-cooked lamb casserole that is Qatar’s national dish, but I’d have thought that football is more usually enjoyed with a burger.

It takes three featherweight stamens plucked with tweezers from 150 saffron crocuses to make one gramme of the dark-crimson threads of the spice. So a bargain for 200 tonnes speaks for Iran’s usual export of saffron, customarily huge but currently hemmed in by a US trade embargo.

The use of saffron, not just for flavour but as a dye, a perfume, and in cosmetics and medicines, goes back to the Phoenicians, Minoans, Greeks and Romans, along with a value per pinch surpassing that of gold. And while its use as a spice keeps up its price today, no description of its flavour – in, say, a bisque or a creme brulee – has managed to match its sublime reputation.

In his wide-ranging history of spices, the German food analyst Udo Pollmer is quite discouraging. “Someone who eats saffroned rice for the first time,” he writes, “is likely to be disappointed. Its aroma is faint, with a ‘medicinal’ note that is more reminiscent of a pharmacy than of exotic scents of the Orient. Its taste is described as ‘peculiar’ and is even slightly bitter on the tongue.” More tempting is the “sweet floral and earthy flavour” saffron bestows on a bouillabaisse fish stew, according to the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.


As a teenage cub reporter with my local weekly paper, I was sent to cover any number of annual dinners in Brighton’s posher hotels (auctioneers, Rotarians, chambers of commerce, Burns Nicht Society and so on). This was to give my older colleagues a work-free weekend and was well worth both the investment in black tie and dinner jacket and some odd looks on the bus. The fraternal banqueting was rarely memorable and undoubtedly saffronless ,but learning liqueurs at the press table was fun. And I did look forward to the gourmet dinners of the Sussex Wine and Food Society, its one misadventure an evening of curry and lager.

As one ages, a stronger spice can take over the palate. Mine is black pepper, ground on to boiled egg at breakfast and soup at lunch, and suffusing a French cream cheese. Such uses seem utterly meagre compared with medieval recipes. At the duke of Burgundy’s wedding in 1408, 380lb of pepper – or about 170kg – was served to his guests. Some dishes of the time, records Dr Pollmer, were inedible masses of black and gold.

There’s thus a gulf of significance between today’s appreciation of black peppers and the role of the spice in the ancient world. The McCormick Science Institute in the United States, a reputable source of research, writes of pepper as once so precious “that it was used as money to pay taxes, tributes, dowries and rent. It was weighed like gold and used as a common medium of exchange.” Even for its masking of dubious taints in salted and cured meat in the pre-refrigerator era, such extraneous value is unimaginable.

The institute also funds research into the potential health benefits of spices. Given their history in traditional folk medicine, there has been a steady increase in clinical reports on the effects of saffron and black pepper. The first may apparently relieve some symptoms of depression and improve short-term memory, the second stimulates the activity of stomach and gut.

Originally native to Kerala, in southwest India, black pepper remains the world’s most widely used spice. Clustered on a vine that climbs trees and walls like ivy, its berries are picked green and left to darken and ferment. The global spread in demand left Vietnam as the leading producer. Prolonged and heavy rains of recent years, however, have left the vines rotting in Vietnam’s waterlogged plantations, and Brazil now dominates the market, at higher prices.

In Ireland, meanwhile, retail packs of saffron threads range up to €215 for 28g, with another €10 postage. Some garden suppliers are offering packs of bulbs of Crocus sativa, among them a crocus farm in Co Waterford growing whole fields of them. My drawing, on the other hand, is of Ireland’s wild autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale, now rare in the valleys of the Nore and Barrow, almost as purple as saffron but not the same plant and rather toxic.

Bon appetit, and happy Christmas.