SAFFRON: A WHIFF OF LUXURY
by Faustina Gilbey
Aesop, the Ancient Greek storyteller of ‘Aesop’s Fables’ fame is quoted as saying that…“good things come in small packages”…and he’s so right!
We’d just finished some aperitivi with dear friends in the rose be-decked village of Bossolasco in the Alta Langhe, when a tiny, tightly wrapped packet of foil was pressed into my hands as a parting gift…the dried stigmas from their first home-grown saffron crop. What a treat! I think Cherasco, near Bra, was the first centre for saffron production in the Langhe region, but now it looks to be rivalled by the Alta Langhe!
A Scent of Saffron
Once home, I excitedly unwrapped the package and, like a truffle hound on the scent, my eager nose inhaled the heady aroma of saffron. Exquisite! Many ask what does saffron smell like…the aroma is difficult to describe and although some have likened it to an oaky wine I found this particular saffron to have more of an exotic, floral-sweet perfume.
A perfume that carried promises of delicate Indian spiced sweets and rich biryanis, Moghul roasted lamb, steaming mellow Persian rice pilafs, herb-grilled Greek fish, fruity Moroccan tagines, Provencal fish and garlic soups and passionate Spanish paellas.
These days classifying and grading saffron is a serious business and testers have to take into account all three criteria of smell, taste and colour. To reach the heady heights of top grade saffron the smell should be a mixture of honey and alfalfa (erba medica), the colour should be a deep ruby red (maintaining this colour even when diluted) and the nearest description for taste is bitter honey.
Where is Saffron Grown
Iran, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Spain reputedly grow the highest quality saffron but many countries also produce saffron including Morocco, France, England (there’s even a town called Saffron Walden), Greece….and a few small growers in Italy.
In fact it’s said that Greece is where saffron was originally cultivated and according to Greek legend it all began with Crocus and his friend the Greek god Hermes. They were throwing the disc to each other one day when Hermes accidentally hit Crocus on the head and wounded him fatally. As the young man lay dying, three drops from his blood fell on the centre of a flower thus becoming the three stigmata.
What is Saffron Used For
A whiff of luxury surrounds this ‘Red Gold’ spice – partly perhaps for its golden colour when added to liquid, but more likely for the cost involved in the time and effort it takes to grow and manually harvest the crocus flowers. Saffron is derived from the dried red stigma of the blue saffron crocus or ‘crocus sativus’, each flower has only 3 stigma and each stigma has to be delicately picked by hand – it takes 150 plants to yield just 1 gram of saffron.
Saffron has been used for thousands of years as a fabric dye – fine golden threads were spun into ancient Persian carpets and the dyed cloth woven into robes for Buddhist and Hindu monks, as well as nobility and royalty around the world.
As a medicinal spice saffron helps to reduce anxiety and insomnia and to lift the spirits – in clinical tests one of the compounds ‘crocin’ was shown to actively help alleviate depression. It’s also a good source of vitamins and minerals which help control blood pressure, repair stress-related damage, soothe the digestive tract and strengthen the immune system. The colour yellow too of course helps lift our spirits into sunnier realms….so saffron can literally brighten our days and help bring more positivity and joy to our life.
However, we probably know saffron best as the culinary spice which adds a fragrant yellow hue to our dishes. Here in Italy the most famous dish is Risotto Milanese which, as the story goes, was created in 1574 by Valerio di Fiandra, a Belgian glassmaker who was working on the windows of the Milan Duomo. For a special feast to celebrate his daughter’s wedding, he took the spice he used to dye his glass windows yellow and added it to a white risotto, and ‘ecco’…a new dish was born! It caught on quickly as it not only tasted good but the golden colour spoke of luxury and wealth.
In recent years, Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi went one step further and instead of adding the traditional Ossobucco (braised veal shanks) to his Risotto Milanese, he made it more luminous and sumptuous by just adding a simple square of edible golden leaf. Pure luxury!
My late Italian mother-in-law taught me how to make risotto – and now making risotto is a special time, something I look forward to as a quiet, contemplative moment to remember her.
Although it’s traditional in Lombardia to serve this with Ossobucco, I prefer it just plain. I still laugh when I remember my first years in Italy when I could speak only a couple of words in Italian and my mother-in-law had to mime to me how Ossobucco literally means ‘bone with a hole’. Two things she always recommended when cooking risotto Milanese was to add the saffron towards the end of cooking as the taste and smell is stronger…and the most important thing of all was to ‘rest’ the risotto at the end. That 5 minutes allowed all the separate ingredients to relax, mingle and come together in perfect harmony.
I think life’s a bit like that!
Thank you to our friends for the wonderful saffron…and I end with Aesop’s words!..
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” (Aesop)
About the Writer:
Faustina is English and lives in Italy. She moved to Lombardia, Italy to be with her partner, Fiorenzo, and they have a Feldenkrais, Floating and Food Therapy Centre, Spazio F. Faustina, a qualified Vegetarian & Vegan Nutritionist, continues her love of food and research by exploring all the wonderful places and products here in Northern Italy. She is also a member of the Complementary Medical Association (UK) and Slow Food Italia. She enjoys teaching seminars on healthy eating and juicing, as well as writing her food/health blog. Follow her on Eating Clouds in Italy and Healing Plantfood and Spices.
Here are some ways to enjoy this decadent spice:
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
1/2 tsp of saffron threads (c. 0.4g) – or a good pinch (it’s notoriously difficult to measure saffron accurately and it also depends on the potency of the saffron and personal taste!)
700ml hot meat or vegetable stock (I used my home-made chicken stock)
1 tbsp/20g butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
250g Carnaroli rice (don’t rinse the rice)
75ml dry white wine (or sherry)
Salt & pepper
45g/½ cup grated parmesan
1 tsp/5g butter
Put the saffron into a small bowl along with a ladleful of hot (not boiling) stock. Allow to sit and release its colour whilst you make the risotto.
Take a medium-sized, heavy-based saucepan and melt the butter and oil over a medium heat.
Add the finely chopped onion and cook until softened, but not browned, about 5 minutes.
Stir in the rice and cook until each grain is covered in the buttery oil, then pour in the wine.
After several seconds, when the wine has evaporated, stir in a large ladleful of the hot stock.
Cook until most of the liquid has been absorbed, stirring every minute or so to stop it sticking, then add another ladleful of stock and stir.
Continue in this way slowly adding the stock, ladle by ladle, for about 15 minutes or until the stock is nearly finished.
Check how the rice is doing, you want it to be al dente but not raw in the middle.
With only a small amount of stock left, add your saffron-infused stock, salt and pepper and then continue until the rice is ready.
Turn off the heat, stir in the parmesan cheese, the teaspoon of butter and a tiny bit more broth then half-cover the pan and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Serve with a little more grated parmesan cheese and ground black pepper.
Note: there really is no substitute for saffron, its unique flavor and smell is so subtle. The only time I have occasionally substituted turmeric is when I’ve made a spicy stew or soup.
SUPER-EASY SAFFRON GELATO, LANGHE–STYLE
Prep time: 5 minutes
300ml/160g good quality vanilla ice-cream
¼ tsp ground saffron (0.15g) mixed with 1 tsp hot water
1½ tsp rosewater
2 tsp ground almonds
Toasted hazelnuts and dried rose petals to garnish (fresh organic rose petals would be even better!)
Take the ice-cream out of the freezer and allow to soften in a bowl.
When softened, stir in the saffron, rosewater and ground almonds until smooth and then re-freeze.
For serving top with toasted hazelnuts and rose petals (fresh or dried)