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Saffron
12.15.2003 by Sarah.


[Author's Note: This conspiracy meanders a bit. I am not in the least surprised, since I heard it from Our Heroine at Peel Pub the other day where I had gone (for the first time ever, in my own defense) to partake of certain Happy Hour delights after handing in a major project that has plagued me for weeks. Our Heroine, somewhat disheveled though nonetheless dashing in her leather chaps and sombrero, sidled up to my table and engaged me in small talk. I mentioned, in goodness knows what context, that my new roommates like to cook. I got quite an earful from her, as you shall see.]

If your roommates cook, then the poor fools may have fallen victim, as have so many, to one of Germany’s stabs at world domination. Now, I do not mean to single out the Germans. Many a fine people have attempted a sort of culinary imperialism before; think of the Basques who entertained certain illusions as a result of their early dominance of the cod-rich waters off of Newfoundland many years before Jaques Cartier sailed the St. Lawrence. The Basques, unfortunately, soon discovered not only that a boat full of cod does not an empire make, but also that they (the Basques, not the cod) spoke a language belonging to no known linguistic group on Earth. The cod too, I suppose.

At any rate, check the spice rack when you go home. There. Saffron. That savoury spice of German supremacy. Saffron, or "crocus sativus," has long bewitched the Western world, and rightly so. First cultivated, so say the Greeks, in Asia Minor, saffron is reaped by hand from the delicate stamens of the crocus flower. Medieval Italian princes impressed their guests with sumptuous feasts of saffron-encrusted meat and fowl that dazzled like gold in the sunlight. Although the crocus sativus can be grown almost anywhere in Europe, the intensive labor necessary for the production of the spice and the low yield of each crocus plant ensured, for merchants, that saffron would ever be worth its very weight in gold. Arabic merchants in the East rode like the Magi on camels laden with saffron to the ports where ships waited to bring the precious stuff back to the West.

Incidentally, the word dromedary, meaning camel, comes from the Middle English word "dromedarie," which came from the Old French word "dromendaire." It could only have entered the British Isles with the Norman Conquest; William the Conqueror’s defeat of Harold at the Battle of Hastings can be attributed to his brilliant tactical use of a camel cavalry. You see, the word dromedary derives from the Greek word “dramein,” meaning “he who runs,” and the suffix “drome” can be seen in such words as “hippodrome,” meaning “a course around which people would run pursued by raging hippopotamuses, or hippopotami, if we are to be grammatically correct.”

We were talking not about camels, but about the Safranschau. In fifteenth century Germany a tribunal was created, called the Safranschau, to punish German merchants who tried to pass off lesser spices, such as turmeric or safflower, as the rarer and more potent saffron. Those found guilty were either burned at the stake or buried alive in their own false wares. From this point on, a larger pattern can be determined.

The sixteenth century marks the first celebration of the Swedish holiday known as St. Lucia’s Day, now commemorated every December 13th. Considered by scholars to be a German import, Swedes observe this festival of lights by parading through the streets and eating “traditional” saffron buns, which was clearly a German contrivance to increase demand for the product. And what about the island, just north of Trinidad and Tobago, known as St. Lucia? What about saffron rice, a dish common to the Caribbean? Slowly, slyly, the Germans have crawled westward. Look in your spice rack when you go home. The German motto has long been “saffron in every pot, a beer in every fridge.” Just you wait; the Germans are going to take over the world.

Unless the Basques beat them to it.




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