Monday, August 24, 2015

Saffron: a Lovely Little Spice

Blog entry by Joanne Ranck-Dirks

Late August is planting time for the fall-blooming saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).  Large corms planted in August may bloom in October and smaller corms will come into flower in fall next year. Saffron crocus blossoms yield perhaps the most expensive spice in the world – it’s also an essential ingredient in local Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.

The dark purple flowers each have three deep-red stigma which are called saffron threads.  At harvest the whole flower is cut and the threads are carefully extracted and spread to dry overnight.  Flowers need to be harvested daily as each blossom lasts only a day or two. The saffron flower harvest extends over several weeks in October. Here at Landis Valley, saffron is grown in the kitchen gardens at the Log Farm and also by the Brick Farmstead.

Saffron develops its rich flavor and fragrance if left to cure for about six months.  No special measures are needed for the curing process, just the discipline to resist using the saffron immediately. Saffron is most often used in cooking mildly flavored meats like chicken and also with noodles and potatoes. The red saffron threads add a warm yellow color to chicken corn soup, scalloped potatoes and enrich the flavor of bread fillings and stuffing for roasted pig stomach.

Saffron is part of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking in a geographic area of Pennsylvania sometimes referred to as the “saffron belt.” This area includes parts of Lancaster, York, Lebanon and Berks counties.  It is thought to have traveled to Pennsylvania with German immigrants in the early 1700’s from the Palatinate in Germany and may have been brought to that part of Germany by immigrants from Switzerland.

In our Pennsylvania Dutch past, many gardens reserved space for a saffron bed.  If gardens yielded more than the household needed, extra saffron found a ready market in local towns.  As the practice of growing saffron diminished, imported saffron took its place.  Small envelopes of saffron are still widely available in local grocery stores.

Saffron was traditionally stored in airtight wooden containers – a small bowl topped with a tight-fitting lid. The most prized of these containers are Lehn saffron cups turned on a lathe by Joseph Lehn (1798-1892) and then brightly painted.  Lehn made these decorated containers as gifts for family members.  The collection here at Landis Valley includes a number of these pieces.