Walking around our garden today in the Autumn drizzle, copper leaves cascading off of our old Pear Tree and the first signs of our saffron Crocus’s sprouting through the soil, reminded me of a time over 30 years ago when we lived albeit briefly on the Herts and Essex border in the UK. This was a really beautiful part of the English country side with narrow winding lanes, ancient villages and quaint thatched pubs dispensing real ale. When we lived there, exploring this countryside was a favourite pastime, and we frequently visited the medieval market town of “Saffron Walden” not quite 20km away. Once home to a major saffron industry, several centuries have passed since this fragrant and colourful little crocus was commercially cultivated there, and today, only the name remains as a reference to its past. However, this all got me thinking about the global trade and history of one of my very favourite spices.
Of course nowadays, saffron is found in just about every supermarket and gourmet store, readily accessible and affordable for everyday cooks but this hasn’t always been the case. Starting as a wild variety of Crocus, probably in the Eastern Mediterranean, over thousands of years Saffron spread across the old world via the Persians who took it east through to the Indus and on to Kashmir, and also via the sea faring Phoenicians that traded it throughout the “Middle Sea” and up along the Atlantic coastline of Spain to the Celtic coasts of Cornwall, where cakes coloured and flavoured with saffron still exist to this day.
Unfortunately over the years the term “Saffron” has been misused to describe almost anything coloured yellow, and certainly when I started in professional kitchens most things labeled “Saffron” as in “Saffron Rice”were simply coloured with turmeric (which in itself is not a bad thing because Turmeric is an amazingly healthy spice) but Turmeric as the root of a tropical lily related to ginger bears no relationship in flavor or fragrance to the delicate but powerful stamen of a tiny crocus and a true “Zaffran Pilau” (saffron rice) remains one of the most fragrant and honest examples of just how delicate but powerful this spice can be.
And it is this power and intense purity as a dye that saw it used to colour cloth for the highest and most revered in the land. In a culinary sense it has long been used to impart food with the colour of the sun and is thus pretty much always associated with warm and sunny lands like Morocco, Spain, Provence, Iran and India, and of course, no spice or herb history would be complete without reference to its medicinal qualities with natural practitioners regaling it as a cure for many, many ills.
Suffice to say with all this background, over the years a lot of confusion, misinformation and mythology has sprung up around Saffron and even today urban myth holds that Saffron is worth more than gold, in all actuality given todays bullion price it is actually worth about 1/10 of the precious metal per gram.Still at around $3800 per kilo (wholesale) it is hardly cheap but quality differs enormously.
From the rubbish regaled as finest Spanish which is often 3rd or 4th grade at best, to the dubious stuff which is clearly safflower, marigold or other such rubbish (all of which may colour food, but also leave it with a taste of decidedly manky daisies). Then there is the con played out in spice markets around the world, often involving a little sleight of hand,which I have to admit I fell for in the old town of Kochi (Cochin) in Kerala. Famous for its pepper market and spice traders, we chose to visit one that was so fragrant of Saffron from the street we just had to go in, of course this “Kashmiri Saffron” was a bargain and after checking the quality, I decided that it was too good to pass up. Transaction complete the ever polite proprietor insisted on parceling it up for me and it wasn’t until I opened the package several days later and thousands of kilometers away that I realized that the stuff in my tin was absolute rubbish.
However its not all doom and gloom, Tas-Saff in Tasmania have great quality Australian grown Saffron and even here in SA we have had some commercial harvests, plus we can always grow tiny quantities at home (see above) but most excitingly I have recently discovered an importer of some amazing Iranian saffron marketed under the “Bahraman” brand, and tagged “the red gold of Iran” , this is nothing short of amazing as well as really affordable ( details of suppliers follow) and this is exciting because good quality saffron makes all the difference to so many dishes. Of course this leads to the obvious question of how do I use saffron and then what do I use it for?
Firstly, for those not accustomed to using Saffron, always soak the filaments you need in a couple of tablespoons of water for about 20 minutes before adding the liquid and soaked stigmas to the dish. As for favourite recipes, personally I love to braise chicken koftas or thighs in a creamy saffron and almond gravy in the Egyptian way, or use it to make richly fragrant pilaf of rice or mixed grains, of course it is an essential ingredient in Paella and the moors spread its use around the Mediterranean coast with all manner of fish soups and stews like Zarzuela de Mariscos from Spain, Cacciucco from Tuscany and of course the most famous fish soup of all Bouillabaise from Provence.
And here I am in total agreement with Elizabeth David when she writes in her book Spices, Salts And Aromatics In The English Kitchen : “if I myself had to choose just one type of dish in which saffron makes an important difference it would be Mediterranean fish soups and stews…..” So following is my loose version of “Bouillabaisse”. It doesn’t quite carry the correct number or variety of fish and shellfish required of the authentic version and is certainly a little less bony, but it is certainly warming and delicious on a cold autumn day and makes great use of the fabulous fresh seafood found along South Australia’s Mediterranean like coastline.
60 ml olive oil
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1 orange – rind only, thinly peeled strip
2 ea leeks – whites only, finely sliced
3-4 cloves garlic – sliced
1 ea fennel bulb –sliced into small wedges
2 med ripe tomatoes – peeled and diced
1 tablespoon Pernod
1 litre fish stock
pinch saffron – soaked in 30ml water
500g whole white fish – cut into chunks through the bone
200 g prawns – tails
12 whole black mussels – scrubbed and debearded
1 tablespoon parsley – shredded
- Heat oil, add the fennel seeds and orange peel and when just sizzling add the sliced leek, fennel and garlic , lower heat, cover and allow to stew gently until soft, do not allow to colour
- Increase heat, add tomatoes and Pernod and allow tomatoes to soften a little then add the fish broth and saffron. Bring to a simmer for 5 minutes then add fish and boil hard for 5 minutes
- Add mussels and prawns, bring back to simmer , add parsley and serve immediately with croutes and rouille.
6 cloves garlic
2 ea egg yolks
pinch cayenne pepper
Salt & white pepper to taste
1 ea lemons – juice of
1 tsp water – lukewarm
250 ml olive oil
- Puree the garlic, egg yolks and seasoning in a food processor or blender.
- With the blades still turning add lemon juice and water, mix well then add the oil in a thin stream.
- Taste the rouille and add more lemon juice, salt and pepper if necessary.
Retail Stockists & Wholesale Enquiries:
In Adelaide Central Market – Bahraman Saffron is available at Lucia’s Fine Foods http://lucias.com.au/