Have you seen them yet, peeking out of the ground, looking for spring like the rest of us? Every spring I see them and am reminded of the article below, and I promise myself this will be the year, but each fall I forget to plant these treasures. So now I’m sharing in the hopes that we’ll either remember together, or forget together. They are not easy to come by (some places offer pre-orders), and you’ll want to find the perfect place in your garden for them:
Every hard-core locavore maintains a private list of foods that will simply never be locally-produced, but without which life is not worth living. Which exotics are deemed indispensable varies by palate; citrus, olive oil, bananas, and rice are a few from my roster. We rationalize by buying fairly traded and organic versions of luxurious essentials. We support local companies trading in them. We tell ourselves that the world would not be a better place if we gave up morning coffee.
So isn’t it a pleasure to find that an item—a costly and rare spice—can shift category from “exotic” to “home-grown”? Turns out that it’s not only possible, but easy, to grow a household supply of saffron, right here in my ordinary Plymouth garden with my ordinary skill set. So what if my first harvest last year was little more than a teaspoon—saffron is intense enough that a very few threads impress their distinctive hue and pungency on a paella or a dish of mussels or a creamy pudding.
As an added attraction, the powerful saffron aroma, flavor, and color characteristics come packaged inside sweet little autumn-blooming crocuses, flowers that would be welcome in the October garden even without the edible bonus. Each crocus flower contains three brilliant orange stigmas, slender threads designed to catch pollen, and these, when dried, comprise the actual spice. Perhaps you’ve heard tell of the poor nimble-fingered Valencians, gathering the stigmas out of acres and acres of crocuses every fall; of the Silk Road caravans toting the precious spice out of its native Kashmir year upon year; even of the dispute among archaeologists about whether the monkey depicted in an ancient Cretan fresco sorting through crocus bits is meant to be a literal depiction of period practice or a spoof on archaeologists. . . As is so often the case, knowing these things intellectually doesn’t prepare you for the thrill of dropping to your knees, putting on your glasses, and plucking, exactingly, your own vibrant, deepest red, living saffron threads. How can it be that such exquisite jewels are sequestered between the heading up Brussels sprouts and the dying hulks of tomato plants?
When first I saw Crocus Sativus in a bulb catalog, my reaction was to look at the Hardiness Zone chart (again!) to make sure there was no mistake. How could our chilly clime support these plants, associated as they are with the blistering steppes and plains of Iran, India, and Spain? But then I recalled that saffron had made an excursion to Essex in not-so-blistering England sometime in the Middle Ages. By the late sixteenth century, the commercial success of Essex saffron was such that a market town was renamed Saffron Walden, and the folks who worked in the trade were charmingly dubbed “crokers.” Pondering that cultural habit of the wandering “r”—having lived in southeastern New England most of my life, I am accustomed to hearing my first name pronounced with a terminal “r”—provoked a little more research. Darned if Saffron Walden didn’t contribute a disproportionate number of settlers to the Massachusetts Bay Company in the 1630s (including the celebrated minister John Eliot). The descendants of the “crokers” are all around us, still dropping and adding r’s by their own rules, but unfortunately their forebears left their trade at home in Essex when they crossed the pond. What a shame! Wouldn’t it be great if saffron were part of our local colonial heritage along with cod and corn and rye?
Originally published in Edible South Shore & South Coast Magazine, Spring 2013 and written by Paula Marcoux, adapted for our newsletter by Pamela Denholm