Friday, January 9, 2015
Red gold on rocky hills: harvesting saffron in Provence
Maybe it was the weather, maybe the colors, maybe the aromas... Maybe a combination of all this. In any case, a morning so perfect that it could only foster hope and healing.
Although I enjoyed hearing about the role of saffron in history, its place in religious rituals, its medicinal benefits, its cosmetic uses, its dyeing properties, its culinary assets, etc. I am not going to overload you with this info because you can easily find it on the web. If you read French, a good place to start would be 13'Or Rouge, Delphine's own website or this report she referred me to. For English-speakers, there is Wikipedia and other resources including this page of gardening tips in case you decide you grow your own (which I'd like to try).
What mostly got my attention was the fact that while the world produces about two hundred tons a year, four hundred tons are actually traded, meaning that not all that is labeled saffron is the real thing. As explained in this article (in French), some producers may substitute marigold, safflower, arnica, corn silk, seaweed, etc. or use dyes. They may make saffron threads heavier by coating them with sugar, oil, honey and mineral powders.
Others may include some non-aromatic parts of the plant itself. The stigma is the red thread which, once dehydrated, becomes the spice. The style is its yellow "foot." Cheaper brands often contains both stigmas and styles. Delphine explained that she always has her harvest helpers (us on that particular day) gather the stigmas in red bowls so that she can see at a glance whether or not they mistakenly included any of the yellow styles. Bowls containing yellow specks do not pass muster. To make her point, she passed around two little bottles, the first one containing dehydrated stigmas, the second one containing dehydrated styles, and invited us to uncork them and smell. The red stigmas smelled divine. The yellow styles smelled like old hay. In other words when you buy saffron that's both red and yellow, you are not getting one hundred percent pure saffron.
I normally get my saffron from Trader Joe's. When I got back home from France, I checked the bottle I had in my spice drawer.
One trick to find out whether the saffron you bought has been dyed is to rub some threads (or powder) between two wet fingers. Your fingers should turn yellow. If they turn red, dye has been used. Delphine advises against buying saffron powder because it is often adulterated.
The saffron-producing crocus is crocus sativus. The bulbs are buried in the summer for a fall harvest. They multiply underground during winter and spring then go dormant. Early summer is a good time to deter them, so that the cycle can resume. Dependent on man's help for reproduction, the crocus has been grown that way for five thousand years. To harvest the saffron, one pinches the flower at its base and snips it off (pulling would damage the bulb). When all the flowers have been harvested, the stigmas are pulled out. There are three stigmas per flower.
Once enough stigmas have been collected, they are dehydrated for twenty minutes at 140-158°F/60-70°C, then stored in tightly closed containers away from any light source.
To maximize aroma and flavor, saffron must be rehydrated before use, preferably for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. A baker might want to soak it in the water to be mixed with the flour.
Delphine took out various saffron-infused products (jams, marmalades, honey, tea) to taste with bread from Dame Farine, the lovely Marseille bakery we had just visited. A match made in heaven!