I’m Just Mad About Saffron…

By Michele Wales, Farm Program Coordinator

 The Spanish call it Azafran, to the French it is Safran, the Japanese named it Safuran, and the Portuguese identify it as Agafrao.  No matter how it is translated, saffron is the most exotic, mysterious and possibly the oldest spice used by man.  And it is growing at the Delaware Nature Society’s Coverdale Farm!

This beautiful fall-blooming crocus, crocus sativus, has found great fame through its three pollen receptors known as the stigma.   Saffron is the “empress of spice” boasting a trinity of actions: a colorant, a flavoring agent, and an aromatic.  The color of the scarlet red stigma (or threads) mellows to a gorgeous yellow as a natural dye and in culinary preparations; the flavor of the dried threads is vibrant, earthy, and metallic; the aroma is pungent and somewhat rosy. 

A Saffron flower spread open.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani
A saffron flower spread open. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Emerging from the garden soil in early-October, thin chive-like leaves, with a slight silvery streak down the center, fan out…to my ultimate delight.  From the first appearance, I count the plants daily to see how many have survived their summer hibernation.  Mid-October approaches and my heart quickens as I make my daily journey to the garden in hopes of feasting my eyes on the voluptuous purple petals and prized scarlet-red stigma.  Harvesting each morning of first bloom, I carefully pull the petals aside; follow the stigma to the pistil (which supports the stigma) and remove them at the base of the flower leaving the petals intact.  The threads are then taken to a dark, cool shelf where they are dried for approximately two days then jarred with a tight-fitting lid.  This yearly ritual takes place for about two weeks and leaves my finger slightly stained a pale yellow.  As winter arrives these lively green, silver-streaked leaves rest atop the straw, braving the chilly months.  As spring approaches and temperatures warm the leaves begin to yellow and by June the saffron bed appears vacant.  Below those prized corms rest, full of energy awaiting the cooling temperatures of October.

Michele Wales, DNS Farm Program Coordinator, poses with a blooming Saffron in her garden.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani
Michele Wales, DNS Farm Program Coordinator, poses with a blooming saffron in her garden. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Visit Coverdale Farm during Farm Fun Days which are Wednesdays from noon to 2:30 p.m. until November 18.  If you want to see Saffron in bloom, you’ve only got a few weeks left…and the blooms last just a single day.  For information on Farm Fun Days, visit www.delawarenaturesociety.org.

A Saffron flower open in it's natural state.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani
A saffron flower open in it's natural state. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

 Please enjoy a very seasonal recipe from the south-west of France:

 Pumpkin with SaffronRecipe taken from Goose Fat and Garlic by Jeanne Strang

 12 ounces of pumpkin or winter squash, peeled and deseeded

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon cornmeal

30 saffron threads, or ½ packet of powdered saffron infused in 1 tablespoon of hot milk

¼ cup of milk

Salt and pepper

 Coarsely chop the pumpkin or winter squash.  Heat the butter in a heavy-bottomed casserole or pan, and let the pumpkin sweat in it until it turns translucent and soft.  Do not let the pumpkin fry; when it is soft enough; mash it with a wooden spoon in the pan until you have a coarse puree, then stir in the cornmeal and the saffron/milk infusion.  Blend in the additional milk, season with salt and pepper, and let it simmer together for 5 minutes.  You will find you have a beautiful gold-colored light puree with a delicate flavor.

Some information taken from The Essential Saffron Companion by John Humphries

1 thought on “I’m Just Mad About Saffron…”

  1. Molly informs me that what she calls saffron in Trinidad is a tall plant – leaves wide and about a foot long, and the root looks like ginger but is very bright orange. They grind the dried root or you can take a piece of the fresh root and put it into water and it will make the rice bright orange/yellow and it adds lots of flavor. I wonder what we would call that plant – certainly not a crocus!

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