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 indispensible 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 descendents 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?
Saffron can swing in so many directions that I puzzled long and hard over what kind of recipe to use for this column. Pilau, risotto, paella, biryani, many a sweet bun and a creamy pudding—so many classic dishes, from Britain to Spain to Iran to India, depend on saffron’s unique defining touch. But deep in my recipe box lurked a recipe I copied from an out-of-print book by a long-dead author with the maiden name of a conquistador; copied ages ago, and never cooked, because of its exorbitant use of saffron. At last, my chance!
Such an interesting recipe. One taste and my food-history imagination cried, “AHA! The would-be food of the New England crokers!” The combination of flavors is utterly arresting, yet entirely subtle: saffron, mint, oregano, nutmeg, pepper, onion, and wine—an ingredient list as ancient as Rome. The technique, too, is a relic. Simmer the chicken first, and then fry, season, and sauce it—a fricassee in the seventeenth-century style. And the word pepitoria indicates the presence of nuts or seeds, usually almonds; they must have gotten left behind when the recipe migrated from Spain to New Mexico, just as they would have on the voyage from Essex to Boston.
Pepitoria de Gallina Recipe (Safron Chicken)
Grow your own:
Suppliers sell saffron crocus corms only at the proper season for their planting, in September (set a calendar reminder now). Within a few weeks of planting, some flowers will emerge, each one sporting, miraculously, three brilliant stigmas. With care, these may be plucked without ruining the flower altogether. Dry the stigmas quickly—one day did it for mine in dry weather—and pack them airtight in a dark place. Gold! The grasslike leaves of the crocus will continue to grow, remaining green until spring, when they shrivel and make way for the summer garden. The second year the established flowers will emerge in full force; the third the corms may have multiplied enough to be divided and spread to another plot.
For additional details about crocus culture: edible Nutmeg’s Winter 2012/13.
To buy corms:
Morrison’s Home & Garden
90 Long Pond Road
Plymouth, MA 02360
Bridgewater Farm Supply
1000 Plymouth Street
Bridgewater, MA 02324
Paula Marcoux is the author of Codfish Muddle and Whortleberry Cake; Cooking for Family and Friends in Nineteenth-Century Plymouth, forthcoming from the Plymouth Antiquarian Society. http://www.themagnificentleaven.com.
Photos courtesy of Paula Marcoux and Diane Fletcher.
Reprinted from edible South Shore & South Coast, Spring 2013.