Saffron- Like Sun On The Tongue

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Virgil Evetts

The other night I threw together a dessert quite shameless in its simplicity – five ingredients and no cooking; yet it turned out to be among the best things I’ve eaten in months, serving both literally and figuratively as an entrée to summer. White peaches, plucked warm from the tree, a sprinkle of icing sugar, a splash of grappa, a glug of cream and most importantly, as it turned out, a crumble of gorgeously musky, improbably yellow, saffron meringue.

Somehow the bittersweet flavour and almost medicinal fragrance of the tres luxe spice pulled everything into line. It was one of those all-too-rare moments with food where the flavours just snap into place, almost of their own accord. It was a roughly assembled, lazy affair and I claim no credit for its grand success. That accolade belongs solely to the quiet grace of saffron.

And this is so often the way with saffron; the subtle complexities of flavour never clamour for attention, they just discreetly go about the business of pushing a good but earthbound dish straight through the stratosphere.

Much has been written about saffron being the world costliest spice. This may be perfectly true, but it’s rather missing the point, because although the proceeds from the sale of ten kilos of saffron would probably clear the average mortgage, few cooks could ever use this quantity in a lifetime. Saffron is very much a ‘less is more’ sort of spice, as anyone who has the extravagant audacity to overdo the stuff in a risotto ala Milanese or paella will find out. What in moderation was delicate and flirtatious becomes pungent and brash in superfluity.

The spice saffron is derived from the dried stigmas of variety of crocus (Crocus sativus), thought to have originated somewhere in South West Asia as a result of careful hybridising and selective breeding over 3000 years ago. Since then it has infiltrated the many cuisines, belief systems and pharmaceutical repertoires of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, by way of the various religious, political and later colonial movements that have shaped and shaken the modern world.

Saffron has always been a precious, exclusive commodity. Its use in food and as a fabric dye has long been a means of flaunting ones wealth, and in various religions (through the anointment of god-figures etc) it serves as a gesture of selfless devotion. Certainly the appeal of saffron in these situations is in part due to its irrepressibly golden hue – gold being another perennial and rather clankingly obvious emblem of prosperity; but most of all, saffron is symbolic of wealth because it’s really, really expensive – depending on how you look at it anyway.

Right now, the international price of saffron sits at well over NZ$10,000 per kilo. That may seem a little steep but it buys over 100,000 stigmas (each saffron flower contains only 3 stigmas), all picked by hand from a planting site which will exceed the area of 2 football fields. All things considered, not bad value really. Despite thousands of years of saffron growers attempting to improve yields and cut costs, there is simply no easy way around these production costs. Although many commercial plant breeders would give up their first born (and yours too for that matter) for the secret to breeding new and improved strains of saffron, they’re probably chasing a pipe dream, because as a result of its parent species’ genetic inability to play nicely, saffron is infertile- it cannot set seeds. This means that all saffron plants in the world today are almost genetically identical, having all been produced from corms which divide asexually each year. In other words, they are all clones of the original saffron plant bred 3000 years ago. As with any species – bananas being another good example – this makes saffron extremely vulnerable. With their limited gene pool, a single disease could theoretically eradicate the entire species.

As well as being a few cards short of a genetic full deck, saffron is also a rather fussy plant. It won’t grow just anywhere, preferring a fairly dry Mediterranean climate, with hot summers and cool (but not overly wet) winters. The international market leaders in saffron production (Spain and Iran) are able to provide these conditions in abundance; and better still (from the growers point of view anyway), both have access to very cheap labour forces – both legal and otherwise. The vast majority of imported saffron sold in supermarkets today will have originated in one of these countries. Until recently, US trade sanction restricted the flow of Iranian saffron (along with anything else the poor buggers had the temerity to produce), onto the world market; this has fortunately started to change. If you really must purchase imported saffron, it’s worth seeking out Iranian (Persian). As with Persian pistachios, dried figs, mulberries and sour cherries, the quality is usually very high.

But that said, why bother with dusty imports when our home-grown product is so very good?

Saffron has been grown commercially in New Zealand since the late 90’s, with production centred around the Hawkes Bay region and a few similarly suited locations in the South Island.

Terraza saffron – owned by Janice Potts and Mark Tyro – oversee a small network of growers managing a total of about 5 acres around the Hawke’s Bay. As the Terraza network expands, and individual corms multiply, the company’s annual harvest is steadily increasing – weather permitting. The total 2009 harvest was a little over 3 kilos, with early predictions for 2010 at around 5 kilos. These figures may seem but a drop in the ocean compared to the 300-odd tonnes that represents the average global harvest, but when you consider that most consumers purchase only a gram or so at a time, this is more enough to supply high quality saffron to discerning cooks and chefs around New Zealand.

New Zealand-grown saffron has an exuberance and freshness far surpassing the various mass-market supermarket brands. Described most aptly by Charles Noville (former chef at Parliament Buildings), as “like sun on the tongue”, the rich, iodine/hay bale fragrance penetrates the packaging; and in cooking both flavour and colour are released with free and copious abandon. Janice and Mark have a policy of only selling the current season’s harvest, which to my way of thinking is testament to just how seriously they take their business, and how passionately they believe in their product.

As well as selling pure dried saffron stigmas, Terraza also produce a small range of saffron-based products. The mini- meringues mentioned earlier are one of Terraza’s newer lines, and are so far just about the most interesting off-the-shelf saffron products I’ve come across (closely followed by saffron pashmak– divine Persian candy floss). Once again, eggs prove to be the perfect vessel for flavour. I’m always saying that. Also in development – and eagerly awaited by this shameless fan – are saffron lemonade (!!!) and saffron pasta.

I have used Terraza saffron on numerous occasions over the years, and thoroughly recommend it to true saffron-heads, for use in risottos, paella, korma, mayonnaise and most exquisitely gelato –ala Antonio Carluccio. Yes, you can get by with imported saffron, but on so many levels, local is simply better.

Because of its freshness and intense flavour, locally grown saffron can be used even more sparingly than its imported equivalent. For maximum flavour extraction, soak gently crushed stigmas in a little warm water or stock. For slow-cooked dishes such as tagines, add saffron towards the end, as the flavour can be destroyed by prolonged heating.

Be aware that adulteration is still a problem with some imported saffron; usually through the addition of ground or finely sliced safflower petals. Although these will yield a similar colour to real saffron, they posses none of the genuine articles flavour or fragrance. Basically, suspiciously cheap saffron probably isn’t saffron.

Saffron corms are available to the home gardener during the summer months from Terraza, various other growers and via Trademe. With great excitement I threw myself into growing a small patch for a couple of years, but for a variety of reasons am now happy to leave it to the experts. The fragile mauve blooms were indeed a lovely sight on crisp autumn morning, and the thrill of harvesting and eventually using the precious stigmas was something very special, but it was to be a short-lived endeavour. The dependable wetness of Auckland summers caused most of the corms to rot, my cats took a uniquely feline pleasure in uprooting the remainder, and the near microscopic yields of saffron in no way justified the space the plants occupied. But that’s just me. If you have the room, climatic advantage, better-disciplined cats (mine are famously naughty), and a more than mildly obsessive nature, you should definitely lay down a saffron bed.



What’s your greatest kitchen extravagance?





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7 thoughts on “Saffron- Like Sun On The Tongue

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  4. I love saffron but have mostly used in rice pilafs and paella rather than being more adventurous.

    My extravagance would be cheese in the main, I love high quality brie, gouda, and haloumi.

    I can be moderately extravagant with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. However they do go a long way.