The so-called Crocus vacation has just sat in this week in Belgium. I find the name felicitous while the first crocuses spring up their heads from the earth in Europa in February.
However the first crocus was seen in Belgium (then the Netherlands), where normally the Crocus species are not native, were from corms brought back in the 1560s from Constantinople by the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador writer and botanic Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. A few corms were forwarded to Carolus Clusius at the botanical garden in Leiden. By 1620, the approximate date of Ambrosius Bosschaert’s painting (can be seen in the Louvre Museum, Paris) new garden varieties had been developed, such as the cream-colored crocus feathered with bronze at the base of the bouquet, similar to varieties still on the market.
Saffron Crocus the most expensive spice on Earth
What does the crocus to do with the saffron? –we can ask! The answer is very simple because the Crocus is a spice derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus.
The saffron has always been associated with high quality and value. Before it became widely known as a spice, it was used primarily as a dye for royal garments and the robes of Buddhist monks. Today, saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, due to the delicate and time consuming means of harvesting the fine threads. Saffron is the red-orange stigma of a variety of crocus grown mainly in Spain, Iran and India. Each flower produces three stigmas which are picked by hand, dried, and sold around the world. Saffron is a common ingredient in risotto, bouillabaisse and paella, and is a popular addition to rice, which takes on the rich saffron-yellow color. Most recipes call for only a small quantity, as the musty honey flavor can become bitter if overused.
Buying, storage and cooking
Saffron is available all year round from supermarkets and special stores however the quality of saffron can vary greatly. Some suppliers include the harvest date on the packaging – look for threads that have been harvested within the last 12 months and are deep red, preferably with orange tips. Saffron threads with white spots are best avoided, as are those that still have the flavorless, yellow stamens attached. Real saffron is expensive, so if it is being sold for a cheap price, it is likely either an inferior specimen, or a total fake. Ground saffron is also available however it is usually mixed with other ingredients, and lacks the quality and flavor of saffron threads. You can store saffron in a cool dark place for up to 6 months or in the freezer for up to 2 years.
For best results, infuse saffron in a small amount of warm cooking liquid (water, milk, stock), for approximately 15 to 30 minutes. The liquid is then added to the other ingredients, usually towards the end of cooking. This draws out the color and helps to ensure the flavor is evenly dispersed throughout the dish.
Dishes with rice are traditionally flavored with saffron in Spain and Iran (paella and pilaf). In Italy the Risotto alla Milanese’s important spice is also the saffron. The bouillabaisse, the famous fish-soup of Marseille is made with saffron as well. The Indian cuisine uses the saffron not of its own but rather mixed with caraway seeds, curcuma and curry. And not only the gourmets know that the suitable wine brings out the bouquet of the saffron! In my opinion the best alternative is the Risling or Chardonnay.
Mussels with saffron
Ingredients: 2 pounds mussels, cleaned, 1 1/4 cups white wine, 1 1/2 cups water, 3 tablespoons margarine, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 onion, chopped, 1 clove garlic, crushed, 1 leek, bulb only, chopped, 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, finely crushed, 1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 6 saffron threads, 1 1/4 cups chicken broth, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, salt and pepper to taste, 2 tablespoons whipping cream
Directions: Place saffron threads in a small bowl, and cover with 1 tablespoon boiling water. Set aside. Scrub mussels clean in several changes of fresh water and pull off beards. Discard any mussels that are cracked or do not close tightly when tapped. Put mussels into a saucepan with wine and water. Cover and cook over high heat, shaking pan frequently, 6-7 minutes or until shells open. Remove mussels, discarding any which remain closed. Strain liquid through a fine sieve and reserve. Heat butter and oil in a saucepan. Add onion, garlic, leek and fenugreek and cook gently 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cook 1 minute. Add saffron mixture, 2-1/2 cups of reserved cooking liquid and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, keep 8 mussels in shells and remove remaining mussels from shells. Add all mussels to soup and stir in chopped parsley, salt, pepper and cream. Heat through 2-3 minutes. Garnish with parsley sprigs, if desired, and serve hot.
Indian saffron rice
1 teaspoon powdered saffron, 2 cups boiling water, divided, 2 tablespoons butter, 1 cup uncooked long-grain white rice, not rinsed, 1 teaspoon salt
Directions: Steep the saffron in 1/2 cup boiling water. In a skillet that can be tightly covered, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Stir in the rice and salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until the rice begins to absorb the butter and becomes opaque, but do not brown the rice. Quickly pour in the remaining 1 1/2 cups boiling water along with the saffron water. Cover immediately, reduce heat to low, and cook 20 minutes, or until all of the liquid is absorbed. For best results, do not remove the lid while the rice is cooking.
Ingredients: 5 cups water, 16 fluid ounces bottled clam juice, 1 (6.5 ounce) can chopped clams, drained with juices reserved, 1/4 cup butter, 1 yellow onion, chopped, 2 cups Arborio rice, 3/4 cup white wine, 1/2 teaspoon saffron, 1 teaspoon dried basil, 8 ounces cooked salmon, salt, ground black pepper
Directions: Place water, bottled clam juice, and reserved juice from canned clams into a medium saucepan. Set over medium-high heat; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. In a large pot or deep skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in onion, and cook until softened, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Stir in rice, and cook, stirring, for 3 to 5 minutes. Do not let rice brown. Pour in wine, and cook, stirring, until the wine is evaporated. Add 1/2 cup of simmering broth, and stir until the broth is almost all evaporated. Then add another 1/2 cup of broth. Stir in saffron and basil. Continue adding broth 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until the liquid has evaporated until the rice is almost al dente, about 20 minutes. When the inside of the rice is slightly more firm than you desire in the final dish, stir in clams, flaked salmon, and 1/2 cup broth. Stir until the liquid evaporates. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in 1/2 cup broth, and stir vigorously. Remove from heat before the liquid has completely evaporated.
Rabbit with saffron (French recipe)
Ingredients: 6 rabbit legs (and shoulders, if you like), sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, 2 tbsp olive oil, 40 saffron threads, 3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced, 750ml/11/4 pints verjuice (very acidic juice), 20 little ripe cherry tomatoes, 4 little cucumbers, a bunch of basil (leaves only), large knob of unsalted butter
Season the rabbit then place in a large, wide pan over a medium heat and add the oil. When hot, brown the portions in batches until golden. Add the saffron and garlic, then the verjus, scraping up all the juices from the bottom of the pan. Allow to bubble to reduce down then turn the heat to low. Using the tip of a sharp knife, pierce each tomato and add to the pan. Season with a little more salt and pepper, then cover and cook gently for 30 minutes until the rabbit is cooked. Continue to cook slowly for 15 minutes until the rabbit is very tender.
Halve the cucumbers lengthways and scoop out the seeds, then halve each piece. Add to the rabbit and cook for a couple of minutes. Tear the basil into strips and add with the butter. Swirl to combine and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning if you need to, then serve.