Spring is in the air and in the ground. Purple and golden crocuses are dotting the landscape, hugging the ground against the unpredictable weather. It was a surprising discovery to learn that the incredibly expensive saffron spice comes from a lowly crocus. Even more surprising was the discovery that the saffron crocus, Crocus Sativus, grows easily where I live. See the long red saffron threads below? They are known as “red-gold.”
I had passed over many recipes because of the cost prohibitive little vials of saffron. Then we had a special dinner party where my husband requested Spanish Paella to celebrate his memories of Spain. I believe I spent $17 on a tiny glass jar containing three delicate threads of saffron wrapped in paper. The threads are so delicate they must be picked carefully by hand, ergo the whopping price tag. Paella would not be authentic without the threads. Moors brought Crocus Sativus (autumn blooming saffron crocus) to Spain a few hundred years after their conquest. Paella is a very pretty dish with things like sausage, mussels, shrimp, tomatoes, and peppers tucked into the huge pan of scented rice, and every region of Spain boasts it’s own take on the dish.
The scent of saffron is somewhat elusive. Dusty and slightly bitter but sweet is the best I can offer, other than that I’d say it tastes like a flower, which it is. Since I’ve not eaten many flowers you see how I’m going in circles with this? I read one report that likens it to honey and fresh cut grass.
Let’s go back to the fun part of this story where the saffron crocus grows cheerfully in western Pennsylvania. I like that. If there’s a way to have the most expensive spice in the world and get it by going out into the back yard to harvest the stigma’s of this crocus I’d think that’s pretty fine. Imagine the small cottage industry potential! They increase in numbers over the years, just like any other crocus.
Here’s the little lady showing off her first blooms last fall. We planted her in honor of our Rosie girl, the best dog ever. She had a great appetite – we knew she’d approve. A brief history of how central Pennsylvania became a major exporter of saffron: The ancestors of the Pennsylvania Dutch widely grew this crocus in Europe and brought it with them when they left and came to America for religious freedom. Saffron cultivation into the modern culinary world can be traced to these diligent farmers. It is generally accepted that saffron grown in this area is the finest in the world.
Just reading the romantic history of saffron and that I can grow it makes me want to make some tasty something with it. Since Spanish Paella, which blends a multitude of flavors, is the only dish I remember using it in, I’d like to try something that showcases the delicate nature of saffron.
If saffron has been mysterious to you and you love to garden, this could be an interesting multifaceted experience. Let’s see where it goes and maybe we’ll all be planting the lovely Crocus Sativus this coming autumn!