In the mid 90’s I became interested in Moroccan cooking. Chicken Tagine with preserved lemons and olives was a mouthwatering recipe, and I journeyed to the grocery store, list in hand, to collect all the ingredients. The recipe I was using called for ½ a teaspoon of pulverized saffron. My chicken was about 9 dollars, the saffron (3 containers from McCormick) was 60 dollars! The dinner was magnificent, but very pricey. Soon after I was gifted about 20 saffron corms from Edible Landscaping in Afton, VA. I’m sure I planted them at the wrong time of the year, nothing bloomed and I forgot all about them. The following fall on the way into the house, returning from work, I noticed dozens of purple flowers blooming in mid-November! My love affair with home grown saffron began.
Six years later, around 2010 I discovered a book on permaculture called Gaia’s Garden! This totally changed the way I was gardening. I learned how to create warmth and microclimates with layered composting, how to work with the plants you grow and with nature and the characteristics of your specific piece of land to maximize water usage. How to use “edges” for natural barriers (deer in my case)! Epiphany!! Here at the farm we are starting to use these techniques. Possibly one of my most challenging sales process ever, is convincing the local agricultural crowd to give up on roundup, use organic manures and create natural barriers for predators.
As my corms grew and multiplied, I never again had to purchase saffron. Over the last 20 years, I experimented with different ways to harvest. Since I wanted to maximize the amount of saffron for cooking, I would hand pick, hand separate and kept both the anther and filament for my own use (the entire stamen). I found the anther (yellow part that has pollen) has great flavor and extends the use of the amount needed. Drying in a dehydrator produced a “baked” result which was too brittle and the flavor seemed reduced. So, leaving the stamens in a single layer on a clean linen cloth to dry in a sunny location produced the best results.
In November of 2019 I purchased a small farm in Orange, Virginia intending to become a saffron farmer! Covid hit, corms were not available, and I was forced to wait a year. In the summer of 2020, things opened up and I was able to order the saffron corms from Roco in the Netherlands (huge wholesaler). They supply the saffron industry with premium quality corms, and they hold the highest, quality certificates, standard in the industry. Because saffron is not so widespread in the United States, we feel that it is important to provide our future customers with a quality product that would be as good or better than what is produced in Spain, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. I calculated that I could plant 55,000 on a third of an acre as a viability test. We plowed and tilled with help from a friend who owns a tractor, got our hoes out and headed to the field!
We are delivering the filament only, as our first product, to be competitive, but if requested we can produce the entire stamen dried for cooking. In the past the petals went onto the compost heap, but in my year of reading and researching it turns out that they have a huge benefit for both tonics and cosmetic uses. Our petals are dried in a convection oven at 150 to preserve color and aroma. We found that when the petals are dried at room temps, they turn a pale lavender and lose their fabulous fragrance, and because of their density, there is a greater chance of mold and slime. YUK. The current batch of petals include the anther and some filaments that were not up to par for the spice.
During Covid, I had time to read up on the market, and do some testing. I ordered saffron from 4 different vendors recommended on multiple survey/review sites, with prices ranging from 10 dollars to 60 dollars a gram. There are ways to do simple home tests to see if what you get it the real thing. If you soak the filaments, they should turn the water yellow after 10 or 15 minutes, while the filaments keep their rich red color. In 2 cases, the water turned red and the filaments lost all color. You can also mix it with baking soda, add water and see if the water turns yellow. If you are familiar with the taste and smell, it should smell of strong honey with hints of chocolate, but not be sweet tasting. Another interesting thing, different people smell different notes when doing the smell/taste test, so that one isn’t as consistent. The 60 dollar a gram product was real the other 3 were fake. Also look closely at the saffron. The filaments grow in a sets of 3, they are lighter at the base, and darker and wider at the tips. Some of the fake saffron was advertised as premium – with the explanation that the filaments were trimmed, and that the product was only the dark end portion. I found that 2 of the fake saffron was this shorter variety, and I think it was chrysanthemum. The other looked like it was possibly corn silk, that was flavored and dyed.
We attempt to provide the intact 3 strand filament, but, during the picking and sorting process, we found it impossible to achieve 100 percent of the time. When the flower blooms close to the ground, it’s sometimes impossible to clip the stem and the filaments become separated. When you pull the flower apart to expose the stamen and clip the filament from the anther, you get another chance to pull the trio apart. But we are providing the whole filament strand at least, so you know you are getting the real thing.
We acquired our corms from ROCO in the Netherlands. They have the highest rating for quality, internationally.
They are also endorsed by Saffron Net https://www.uvm.edu/~saffron/pages/saffronnet.html