I feel like cooking one of those whole-day-to-make affairs where you get through a few albums on the stereo and do everything from scratch with all the chopping and peeling and frying and simmering so that you just get embroiled in it all and the house smells of nothing else. I am thinking a nice tangy borscht with beets, cabbage, carrots and pork, or else a bouillabaisse; white wine, dill; garlic, herbs, olive oil, butter; sour cream, and a generous teaspoon of saffron.

Since the beginning of 2021 we have sworn to each other not to eat in a single eatery until the virus is under control, and have been making food at home, leaving things to eat for each other during the working week. The excellent Kamakura vegetable market is right next to Duncan’s school, and he often returns with intriguing vegetables I have never seen before; black hairy carrots, dark purple radishes, bitter greens with crenellated surfaces. They often throw in some free radicchio or rucola as well; wasabi or mustard leaves; mountain potatoes.

Although I often need simple, even bland food – mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables served with some grilled protein – very traditional English – like most people I also love the whole gamut of herbs and spices. So much more than mere flavour enhancers and condiments, needless to say, spices are also vital botanicals with proven health benefits and rich histories that boost energy, the psyche, and the immune system at this stressful and depleting time we are living in (see also this piece I wrote on the power of essential oils). They are necessary. The new recently opened takeout Turkish kebab place, Zaza’s, in Ofuna, is drawing long lines of local people who have probably never eaten this food before and can’t get enough of the cinnamon, sumac, cumin and thyme-infused meat wafting through the air of the big market there; so filling and galvanising in the cold weather : you feel it heating you up from the inside, suffusing an aromatic warmth through your blood vessels. Delicious natural complements. Indispensable in winter. The sea faring trading ancients thought of spices not just as perfumes and culinary and economic necessities but also as medicines; the basis for the treatments given by Phoenician or Ayurvedic physicians: observably tried and tested remedies; as anti-oxidants to free radicals, as body vitalizers. Both paprika and cayenne pepper are well-known anti-inflammatories for inflamed joints; treating the swollen tissue from within – so I use them regularly in my food. Those with heart problems are sometimes advised to carry the latter with them at all times, as the chemical capsaicin in cayenne pepper is reputed to be able to sometimes nip an incipient cardiac arrest in the bud. Spices flood our circulation and stimulate our brains; there is a much lower incidence of Alzheimer’s in India precisely because of the great prevalence of turmeric in the cuisine – a hyper-health food I am not very keen on the taste of unless blended into a curry or a cardamomed masala chai, but which I do always keep a bag of as a cold antidote – I find it helps keep illness at bay.

Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and star anise (a powerful virus destroyer) I use copiously in my rooibos teas. D is the pfeffermeister, a pepper lover, sprinkling cracked pink, white and black pepper onto salads; I am the one more naturally geared towards the perfumed voluptuousness of saffron, saved usually only for particular occasions like today (Valentine’s). I have a real pull towards saffron, particularly with seafood : intrinsically aphrodisiac and sense-altering and without parallel in the spice rack; sublimating all the food around it with its stark yellow scent that smells like liquorice in concentration but like the warm breath of suppressed carnality in the desired concentrations. I have to restrain myself when cooking with it, as I know from experience that it can easily overwhelm.

The most expensive spice (along with vanilla), saffron is gathered from the deep orange threads that grow in the centre of the crocus sativus, painstakingly removed from the flowers and dried, then traditionally used in dyeing, perfume; food and teas for their perceived positively therapeutic effect on ‘melancholy’. Saffron undeniably has this effect: there is an instinctive immediacy to the smell and the taste that pulls you back through the looking glass into happier terrain. I am always fascinated by this; the fact that you can intuit a particular plant’s therapeutical magic before even reading up on it; you can sense and physically feel the intrinsic positivity of saffron, though just one inhalation. Known as ‘red gold’ in Iran, where 90% of the world’s saffron is currently produced, this precious spice has been used for tens of thousands of years across the vast majority of the world cultures via the spice trails, used medicinally for depression, insomnia, and reproductive issues; research is currently being done also into its potential usage as a drug to treat Parkinson’s – the crocetin that forms part of its natural essence a potential prophylactic for dementia. In the palaces of Knossos in Crete, where we went as a family in 1987 for our first ever holiday abroad – I vividly remember the exciting, blazing sun, and hiding in the cooler shadows behind great white stone – there are frescoes in the museum I may or not have seen, that depict crocus flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys for their uses by the deities; on the island of Santorini there is another walled painting of a Minoan goddess supervising the ‘gleaning of stigmas’ for the use in some ancient drug. Or possibly the other way round. Fear of the seductive powers of saffron made traders of the past wary of being fed saffron-laced Persian cuisine ; unwitting arousal caused by the ingestion of these tiny aromatic threads leading to lord knows what consequences: saffron clearly is arousing: not a psychological imagining, but a physiological response in the body. The Greek mythical origins of the substance confirm this : in the Crocus and Smilax myth, in which the standard priapically amorous youth unwearyingly pursues a beautiful nymph who eventually tires of the chase, the enchantress uses her bewitching powers to transform him immediately into a living saffron crocus, a flower whose radiant orange stigmas were held up vividly as a ‘relict glow of an undying and unrequited passion’.

In perfume, I find that proper saffron tints tend to be found mainly in Arab or Arab-inspired creations. Some of the sweeter, more balsamic attars infused with a dose of saffron can drive me doolally; a kind of cellular discombobulation where I melt into myself for a few seconds and come out differently. Although not one of my ‘regular ingredients’, I do seem to get a fierce craving for a saffron scent every once in a while – usually in early summer, when you can wear looser and less clothing and a saffron-laced perfume goes perfectly with sun-kissed skin. I remember I went to look for my Montale Velvet Flowers in May or June last year when this urge came predictably over me (the peculiar peach-blossom and saffron combination in that scent is very mood heightening when you are in the right frame of mind for it), but it had leaked; just an intense gunge of dehydrated perfume ingredients that I dripped, burning, onto my evaporated wrists nevertheless.

L’Artisan’s Safran Troublant, one of the most popular niche saffron creations, is a tad duskymusky floatily distant for my own use; Grossmith’s Saffron Rose, on the other hand, a truly gorgeous, rich and sense-drowsing opening accord of Damascene roses and saffron, cinnamon, myrrh, labdanum and oud that eventually tilts into more familiar agar territory but whose opening makes it a very desirable fragrance to own if you are a true saffron lover (it is a prohibitively costly perfume, but definitely one of the best saffrons I have ever smelled – do tell me any others that you would recommend). Byredo’s popular Black Saffron is also undeniably impressive – from about a mile away – but too acrid and hyperbolic up close. A dot here or there though, with a suede or leather jacket, and this scent can work alchemical wonders on the right wearer.

New Bavarian perfume house GCB’s Coeur Du Safran, by Günter Schramm – a firm, full-bodied saffron creation, in some ways has a similar feel to the swaggering, Swedish saffronbomb, but is less tarry, more gourmand in the manner of Mugler – and thus more approachable. Though more dense and sugar-spun than I am used to wearing, it is a nicely balanced upright saffron perfume blended with sandalwood, tolu balsam, benzoin and a touch of orange blossom/musk that, once we start going out of a summer evening again, I think I might wear with a black flannel open-necked shirt and just stride into the light. Like the aforementioned borscht or bouillabaisse, the saffroned tinctures of ancient India; that sensual, tantric aroma; if the perfume is concentrated on saffron, I have no doubt that I will find it fortifying.


Filed under Flowers


  1. Gisela Barrington

    As one of your forever silent readers and admirers I had a good laugh about the young girls and monkeys! I bet they were monks?

    • You would think hilarious typo, but that is why there is a picture of scimians at the top! It’s an insulting idea ‘young girls and monkeys’, as though they belong in the same bracket, but bizarro enough to be worth including

      • Gisela Barrington

        I remember the picture, which to me looked like some interesting coloured pattern. Now I know better. I actually need new glasses, being locked in for so long has made my eyesight worse…..grateful that my sense of smell still seems to be working ok!

      • My eyesight has badly deteriorated as well – glad the nose is still functioning !

  2. Robin

    This is great. I love to give a day over to cooking, full immersion. I love spices, how a whole culture’s identity can be condensed into a particular, unmistakeable combination. When you mentioned Turkish food, I did go a bit nuts. (I went through a year long Lahmacun phase a few years ago, like five times a week, and would do it again except Ric doesn’t like lamb.) And Moroccan: we had a super-high-end restaurant in Vancouver that was Morocco meets France (Moroccan born, French trained chef), and that mix was addictive. And saffron. Yes, as you say, with seafood, nothing better. Spanish cuisine, paella; bouillabaisse (which reminds me of how good saffron is with tomato). We have a massive and excellent gelateria, more than a hundred flavours, and saffron ice cream is worth the wait whenever it shows up.

    Saffron in fragrance is tricky for me. I had Zafferano from Odori and it was just too much of a good thing, acrid. (And yet when I used up the last drops I was sorry it was gone. That last time, those last sniffs, I was starting to be swayed.) Heavy, tempered with honey, rose and cinnamon, Prestige (original) from Arabian Oud is one saffron I really like; someone had brought it back as a present to a friend of mine and he could not stomach it; he is more the CK1 type. Another is Calligraphy Saffron with marigold and tonka, really nice and golden and more easily digestible. But given the choice of saffron in food or perfume, I’d go with food.

    I would love to get my paws on the Grossmith.

    • It has a gorgeous opening I know you would love- not sure if the end would thrill enough. I LOVE the idea of the tonka and marigold – never heard of Calligraphy Saffron.

      I agree – ultimately in food, physically ingested, is where saffron is best. It was funny yesterday, I ended up making a vegetable borscht that initially had WAY too much saffron in it and I thought it might be inedible. I dilled and laureled and paprika’d it into submission and by the end it was very tasty. D asked :

      ‘So did you put any saffron in it in the end?’

      • Robin

        Aramis (I know you love the original Tuscany) came up with three scents in 2012-2014 for the Middle Eastern market: Calligraphy, Calligraphy Rose and Calligraphy Saffron. Not sure if they were a hit in Dubai at the time, they were a minor cult sensation in Canada and the US because they packed quite an exotic punch without an outright authentic wallop over the head and the discounters were pretty much giving them away for a brief time until the limited stock was exhausted (which, come to think, probably means they bombed in Dubai.) They’re rather good, although pretty much extinct. I think Estee Lauder invested a fair bit to make them decent products, but I’d imagine they came across as wannabes, imposters in the UAE.

      • ‘Imposters in the UAE’ needs to be made into a film franchise

    • I love the idea of saffron ice cream by the way. I have never heard of it before. Yum.

      • Robin

        It’s so good, and they really go all out. You can see the little bits of saffron threads and everything. It’s owned by Mario, a mad genius, self-taught, took a chance and invested in a Rolls Royce of Italian gelati machines when he was practically a kid, and now there are three generations scooping ice cream there. I stand corrected: there are 72 flavours at any given time, but they rotate so he’s probably created literally hundreds of flavours over the years. (I remember a roasted garlic number that was really quite edible.) The place is packed even in the dead of winter. It’s close to Chinatown and the Durian — truly, accurately stinky — is a local favourite.

      • X


        Durian is so dodgy : but I have a feeling I might like it

      • Robin

        I can’t resist posting a picture of Mario, if it works. His great-grand-dad made gelato in southern Italy in early part of the 20th century, so he’s carrying on quite the tradition (although I don’t think Gaetano could ever have conceived of durian).

  3. AmyD

    That is such a good way to describe Safran Troublant – distant – totally agree with you. Was hoping for more…more. More punch. I found it amusing that Fragrantica reviewers go on about the cumin – I’m South Asian, the cumin in ST is like a light breeze compared to what I cook with! I really can’t imagine anyone noticing the cumin if I wore a lot of ST, but maybe I’m underestimating the impact…

    Funny, I’ve lately been craving chai with saffron…will have to make myself some soon!

  4. Saffron always puts me in mind of autumn for some reason. Not sure if its radiantly sunny scent reminds me more of the golden Fall in my native Sonoma (complete with the acrid tinge of burning leaves and fermenting wine grapes) or the baking of yuletide treats laced with cardamom and saffron traditional to my Dutch ancestry. I have a bottle of Ajmal’s long discontinued Ragheeb attar that I love to wear every September. It’s a lush rose and saffron composition spiked with nutmeg, clove, and myrrh. Leans very unisex as Arabian rose fragrances usually do.

  5. Hanamini

    Talk about a post inducing cravings…not only for more perfume but for paella and saffron buns too. My associations are simple. In savoury foods and perfumes, it’s summer. I confess to liking Jo Malone’s saffron; I wore it on a drive through Monument Valley some time ago and I can still recreate that feeling of hot wind and dust with a few good spritzes. But in baking, it’s winter. My school was at the top of a steep slope in Stockholm, and when it snowed and iced over (always, in winter), I had to physically drag myself up it using the handrails on the buildings, woollen gloves sticking to the iron. Halfway up the slope was a bakery selling saffransbullar (saffron buns). You probably know that saffron, cinnamon, and cardamom are typically Scandinavian spices, from trade routes hundreds of years ago. If you can imagine anything better than a cinnamon bun, it’s a plump golden-yellow saffron bun in the depths of an icy dark morning. Thanks for the memories. I recall not liking the AP at one point; I’m off to try all the other saffrons mentioned above, if I can find them.

  6. georgemarrows

    > I love the idea of saffron ice cream by the way.

    An Indian restaurant just round the corner makes their own saffron kulfi. It always stops me in my tracks when I taste it. Weird + delicious.

  7. All this talk of saffron and spices was so fitting to read today; I am making chicken vindaloo. The whole house smells of spices and goodness from the marinade. I will add a touch of saffron to the pot as its cooking, it will add that unforgettable something to the aroma and flavor.
    I also have had the luck to have enjoyed saffron infused ice cream at a shop around an hour away from our home. They have so many unique and interesting flavors, but my favorites are kulfi and saffron. I just checked their web page and they have the saffron, it is called Bombay. I wish I could have some. Damned pandemic.
    The saffron scents you mentioned sound lovely. I have tried Saffron Troublant before, and it overpowers me. I smell like I am the main course of a meal, and not a good meal either.
    The Grossmith’s saffron sounds like something I would enjoy, but it is rather pricey. If you think it might work on me, I will splurge for a sample from Les Senteurs.

  8. Hanamini

    My Grossmith sample arrived today, along with samples of others I had tried before in store. The Saffron Rose was lovely to start with—saffron and licorice, just the ticket for me—but it wasn’t long until the vegetables (celery?) took over, I’m sorry to report, and they haven’t abated. It just doesn’t work on me unless I fancy smelling a nice potage as I go about my business. I may splurge on some more Hasu-no-Hana (makes me think of long-ago butoh) or Phul-Nana for hippie days or Shem-El-Nessim—the latter even better than I remembered it. The Golden Chypre is making me high the more I sniff. A free sample of Betrothal arrived too—I hadn’t tried that before. Light and airy, with a nice Heure Bleuey feel, but a bit too much lightness and air. Thanks again, Black Narcissus, for another fun tangent on to go off on.

    • Yes : the beginning of Saffron is gorge – I was less enthralled by the end even if I hadn’t personally come across celery !

      Hasu No Hana is divine : and Shel-E-Nessim: forgot what Golden Chypre was like but they do do properly weighted, burnished powdery goodness that house

      • Hanamini

        Golden Chypre, to my unqualified nose, is quite lemony and projectile, while keeping a super-thread of chypre, and very long-lasting—to chypre what Malle’s Une Rose is to rose, in my mind. “Golden” denotes bright yellow rather than burnished, I feel. I could get to like it; it’s certainly going to get a few more chances.

      • Sounds a bit of an effort. I can’t be bothered to ‘put in time’ with perfumes on the whole – I want to be seduced by them, not the other way round!

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