Hippocrates wrote of saffron for use in medicine, but the Romans appreciated the world's most expensive spice for its ability to mask unpleasant smells.

Saffron water and oil was used in theatres to sprinkle on the seats of noble families. The emperor Hadrian had hollow metal statues filled with saffron water and then drilled tiny holes into them, so that the aroma leaked out continually. Saffron’s aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has also been noted as hay-like and sweet. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange coloring to foods. It is widely used in Persian, Indian, European, and Arab cuisines and confectioneries and liquors often include the spice. Saffron is used in dishes ranging from the jewelled rice and khoresh of Iran, the Milanese risotto of Italy, the paella of Spain, the bouillabaisse of France, to the biryani with various meat accompaniments in South Asia. One of the most esteemed uses for saffron is in the preparation of the Golden Ham, a precious dry-cured ham made with saffron from San Gimignano. Common saffron substitutes include safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, which is often sold as “Portuguese saffron” and turmeric (Curcuma longa). In Medieval Europe, turmeric was also known as “Indian saffron” because of its yellow-orange color.

Harvesting Saffron in Italy