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Pinna nobilis growing in the wild

Luxury fiber is a strange thing.  Linen comes from flax (which has some legitimate claims to being the first domesticated plant). Silk is derived from the cocoons of lepidoterans.  Qiviut comes from the undercoats of musk-oxen.  One of the rarest of all luxury fibers comes from an even more peculiar source.  “Sea silk” is produced by collecting and spinning the long micro filaments or “byssus” secreted by several kinds of bivalve mollusks–expecially Pinna nobilis (a large saltwater clam once widespread in the Mediterranean ocean).  Pinna nobilis can grow up to a meter (3 feet) in size and anchors itself to the ocean floor with an extremely fine fiber it excretes from a land in its foot.

A Pinna nobilis shell and naturally colored sea silk gloves

The fiber was mentioned in various Greek, Egyptian, and Roman sources (and an analog seems to have existed in ancient China) but differentiating sea silk made from mollusk fibers from similar luxury fibers like cocoon silk, or fine linen seems to be more a matter of context rather than of terminology.  Sea silk is finer than the true silk produced from silkworm cocoons.  It was said that a pair of ladies’ gloves made of sea-silk could be folded into one half of a walnut shell because the fiber was so profoundly delicate.  Sea silk was warm and durable but it was infamous for attracting clothing moths.  A few pieces have survived in museums including the extraordinary mediaeval chasuble of St. Yves pictured below.

The chasuble of St. Yves in Louannec (woven of byssus/sea silk)

Unfortunately the Pinna nobilis clams which are the source of byssus fibers have declined rapidly in number thanks to overfishing, pollution, and the general decline of the Mediterranean sea-grass beds.  Other fibers like seaweed based cellulose or watered silk have adopted the “sea silk” name further confusing the issue.   Today the sea silk industry only barely survives in Sardinia where a handful of aging practitioners keep it alive–more for tradition’s sake than economic reward.

Chiara Vigo, one of the last sea silk textile masters

Egyptian Blue faience ushabtis at the Louvre

In ancient Egypt the sky was a gleaming blue, the sacred lotuses had blue petals, the pharaoh’s battle crown was blue, beautiful women wore chokers made of blue stone, and, above all, the life-giving Nile was blue.  The ancient Egyptians needed azure pigment to portray these essential elements of life within their sacred art, but the only natural blue pigments were from turquoise and lapis lazuli—semi-precious stones which were rare and expensive.  To provide a sufficient supply of blue pigment for painting, jewelry, and sculpture, the Egyptians therefore invented the first synthetic pigment which today is appropriately known as “Egyptian blue” (well, it is also appropriately known as calcium copper silicate–CaCuSi4O10 or CaO·CuO·4SiO2—but I’m going to keep calling it Egyptian blue).

Egyptian Blue Faience Votive Cup with Cartouche of Amenhotep III, c. 1391 – 1350 B.C.

Egyptian blue was synthesized in the 4th Dynasty (c.2575-2467 BC) when the newly created pigment was first used to color limestone sculptures, beads, and cylinder seals.  Its use became more prevalent in the Middle Kingdom, and then increased again during the New Kingdom when blue was used for the production of numerous everyday objects.  Throughout the Hellenic and Roman age, Egyptian blue was a mainstay of the nascent chemical industry, and it found its way into all sorts of art, jewelry, crafts, and artisan wares.  Then, in the fourth century the secret of its manufacture was lost.  Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century did interest revive as the English and French pioneers of the chemical trade rushed to synthesize useful compounds.  As one might surmise from the fact that the manufacturing process was lost for a millennium and a half, the method to make Egyptian blue is surprisingly involved.  Citing a British Museum publication, Wikipedia describes it thus:

Several experiments have been carried out by scientists and archaeologists interested in analyzing the composition of Egyptian blue and the techniques used to manufacture it. It is now generally regarded as a multi-phase material that was produced by heating together quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate, and a small amount of an alkali (plantash or natron) at temperatures ranging between 800–1000 °C (depending on the amount of alkali used) for several hours. The result is cuprorivaite or Egyptian blue, carbon dioxide and water vapor…

The Egyptians were clearly people who took their pigments seriously, and thankfully so–the blue tints they crafted have lasted for thousands of years (and helped us find our way to synthesized pigments).   It is strange to think of the subtle ways that the Nile still flows through our lives.

The mummy wrappings of Ankh Hor (21st or 22nd Dynasty, 1069-715 BC)

Argh!

The winter is gradually passing away into spring–which should be an exultant season for flower gardeners.  Yet the results in my back yard are extremely discouraging because the ferocious squirrels of Brooklyn have eaten all of my crocuses!  Despite planting an immense number of the hardy little flowers, I am still bereft of spring color.   I guess I should have expected something like this after the infernal bushy-tailed rodents ate all the glass bulbs from the Christmas lights…

The Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)

As it turns out, squirrels are not the only ones who love crocus flavor.  One of the world’s most precious spices is made from the little flowers.  The gourmet spice saffron literally consists of the harvested stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).  The saffron crocus plant has been domesticated since antiquity to provide the costly spice and the plant literally owes its existence to human appetite for the powdery threads.  Crocus sativus is a descendant of Crocus cartwrightianus, a wild crocus from the rocky skree of southwest Asia.   As humankind selectively planted the plants with the longest stigmas (and hence the most delicious saffron) the little crocus developed into a completely different—and completely dependent—species.  Crocus sativus now has magnificent spiraling stigma covered in deep yellow pollen, but the artificial selection came at a terrible cost.  The plant is a male sterile triploid, incapable of sexual reproduction thanks to its extra chromosome.  Saffron crocuses can only reproduce asexually and they require human assistance to prosper.  The spice is still prohibitively expensive since the little plants must be planted and harvested by hand.

A majority of the world's saffron currently comes from Iran.

Saffron is known to recorded history as early as the 7th century BC (when it was mentioned in a Assyrian botanical treatise) however archeological and genetic evidence suggest that saffron has been harvested for at least 4 millenia!  Since saffron contains over 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, I am not going to try to describe it to you—you’ll just have to get some yourself.  My favorite dish which uses the yellow pollen is mussels, saffron, vermouth, and cream!

Of course I am cheating a little bit by writing this article in the spring–the saffron crocus is really an autumn flowering plant.  However I felt like my slaughtered crocuses deserved some sort of memorial tribute.  Of course if I really wanted to commemorate the slain flowers I could turn to my paint box. In addition to being a spice, saffron is also a color—a deep orangey gold reminiscent of foods prepared with the spice.   Strangely, for a color so steeped in the sensory joys of living, saffron has also come to represent worldly renunciation.  Buddhist monks wear robes of deep saffron and the top bar of the Indian flag is the same rich orange-yellow.  The flag’s designers hoped that the color would inspire India’s leaders to set aside material gains and dedicate themselves to the welfare of the people, but, alas, in all societies such selfless dedication is even rarer than the rarest spice.

Buddhist Monks in Laos

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