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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Quest for Red Threads

 We've managed to get a decent amount of potatoes this season, even though I hadn't planted any starts this year. Apparently, I missed some itsy bitsy taters when I dug them out last fall and they turned into sizable plants that gave us red and white potatoes of questionable varieties. The choices are Yukon Gold, Superior White and Red Norland. Red Norland would be the default for the red type and I'm thinking that the whites are a mish-mash between the other two. Far more red potatoes grew than white ones.

Hopefully I've thoroughly cleaned out the potatoes from the tub because this fall I've planted crocus bulbs. You're probably asking yourself why I would plant crocus bulbs instead of potatoes, but there's one simple reason: Saffron! I've planted Crocus sativus, the crocus that gives us the spice, saffron. I love to cook various Mediterranean cuisines such as paella and Persian dishes both of which call for copious amounts of saffron. Upon emptying out my tiny jar of the last of my saffron, I've decided to try and grow my own.

Spacing out the bulbs before planting.
Now saffron isn't only expensive to buy, it is THE most expensive spice on the market, and with good reason. It takes approximately 200,000 crocus stigmas to get a pound of saffron. That's 12,500 stigmas in an ounce. Now I didn't go out and purchase thousands of bulbs to plant in my yard. At around thirty-three cents a bulb at the local nursery, that would have cost around the price of a new car. Plus at 4 inches apart, that would require around 7400 square feet of garden space (at 9 bulbs per square ft.) or 616 claw foot bath tubs packed in without pathways (at 12 sq. ft each). So, I settled for 30 bulbs and spaced them between the cat proofing slats. At three stygmas per flower, I figure I'll get around 90 to 180 stigmas (with double flowers) which will probably fill up my tiny jar some. The next year I should get a greater yield because the bulbs will have multiplied, producing more flowers.

That is, if they don't rot from all of the rain we get around here. If you think about it, Saffron comes from arid climates; Spain and Iran. The PNW isn't exactly arid on this side of the Cascade Mountains, even when we haven't had much rain for the last several months. However, I've read that generous spring rains and drier summers are optimal. This year is a great example. Since this crocus variety flowers closer fall, I'm hoping that the flowers won't get beaten up by rain like tulips around here do in the spring.

Because of it's out of orbit cost, Saffron is one of the most counterfeited spices around. What is passed off as saffron by unscrupulous vendors is often really a type of marigold or safflower petal. You may see this  product coming out of Mexico on this side of the pond. Also, the Caribbean folk like to call turmeric saffron and turmeric is also passed off as saffron to unsuspecting tourists abroad. Unfortunately, even some fine restaurants try to dupe the customer by passing turmeric off as saffron. The best defense is to purchase it from a reputable specialty store, especially where folk from the Middle-East shop because they would know.

So, how do you tell if it's real? First of all, it should cost some scratch. If you think you're getting a bargain, chances are you're getting shafted. The litmus test is easy. Simply drop a few threads in a glass of warm water. If it takes a few minutes for the strands to diffuse a dark color, then it's the real thing.  If the stuff immediately colors the water yellow or a murky orange, then it's a fake. There's also a distinct flavor and scent that real saffron possesses.

So, I've decided to give it a go myself, and see what I can get. Watch for me next fall in the veg garden in the morning hours, bending over a claw foot bathtub with tweezers in hand to collect my bounty of Crocus sativus stigmas. Hmmm. Saffron, medicinal poppies and lavender. Do I detect a theme here?

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