Garden Gold

"Saffron is more than just another pint-sized purple flower. It’s a link to the exotic East...".

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Garden Gold

"Saffron is more than just another pint-sized purple flower. It’s a link to the exotic East...".

By Steve Werblow

Crocuses and tulips are spring up in our (very) humble Oregon garden, colorful reminders to get ready to plant one of my new favorites – saffron crocus. An experiment with a few of the little corms, planted in early summer, yielded a great surprise around Halloween—a proud, purple saffron flower with its festive orange pistils.

Saffron is more than just another pint-sized purple flower. It’s a link to the exotic East, one of the most expensive spices in the world, the sort of bounty that sailed a thousand ships in the heyday of the spice trade.

Our little crocus yielded its three tiny pistils, each plucked delicately with a pair of tweezers and dried into a “thread” of saffron. Multiply that by the millions of flowers in the purple fields of Spain or the Middle East and you get an idea of what it takes to harvest saffron.

The huge price for saffron also explains its global black market. Fraudsters substitute safflower, turmeric or other yellowish spices, or launder cheaper Iranian or Moroccan saffron through Spain. That explains why Spain, whose saffron farmers produce about 6,200 pounds of the spice per year, sells about 79,300 pounds of it per annum. (That said, Iranian and Moroccan saffron tastes wonderful. The most important thing is making sure you’re buying real saffron, wherever it’s from. As sanctions are lifted on Iranian exports, perhaps we’ll see Iranian saffron marketed in the U.S…and perhaps it will be more of a bargain.)

Of course, the most fun is to grow your own. Our little saffron crocus is part of an herb planting that runs along our driveway and lines the yard outside our kitchen window. The Mediterranean classics—rosemary, oregano, thyme and lavender—are all perfect for our dry Northwest summers, living nearly maintenance-free through the past several years of drought.

Most important, our kids have grown up snipping sprigs of herbs that show up in soups, sauces and grills all year long. It’s our little bit of nature’s bounty, and our connection from the soil to our dinner plates.

Now, with our three tiny threads of saffron, we’re going to color half a dozen grains of rice for the world’s smallest paella.

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