Saffron is Here!

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

A word about Saffron

November 2021

Saffron is one of the world’s oldest and most expensive spices.  It is also effective in treating depression. 

The wild predecessor of domesticated saffron crocus is Crocus cartwrightianus, which grew wild on the island of Crete.  As in all human “bred” things we may have collected and propagated specimens with very long stigmas, or more specifically long filaments, the red threads which are part of the stigma.  Saffron has been used as a spice and medical treatment for over four millennia.  Ancient Greek legends tell of brazen sailors embarking on long and perilous voyages to the remote land of Cilicia, where they traveled to procure what they believed was the world’s most valuable saffron.

It is said that Cleopatra of Egypt used a quarter-cup of saffron in her warm milk baths, as she prized its coloring and cosmetic properties and believed that it would make her more attractive to men. hmmmmm……

Saffron made its way to the New World when thousands of Alsatian, German, Swiss and others fled religious persecution in Europe. These settlers, who became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch, were widely cultivating saffron by 1730 after corms were first brought to America by the Schwenkfelders, who were great lovers of saffron, and had grown it back in Germany.  Pennsylvania Dutch saffron was soon being successfully marketed to Spanish colonists in the Caribbean, while healthy demand elsewhere ensured that its listed price on the Philadelphia commodities exchange was set equal to that of gold.   

However the War of 1812 destroyed many of the merchantmen that ferried American saffron abroad. Pennsylvanian saffron growers were afterwards left with surplus inventory, and trade with the Caribbean markets never recovered. Pennsylvania Dutch growers developed many uses for the now abundant saffron in their own home cooking—cakes, noodles, and chicken or trout dishes. Saffron cultivation survived into modern times principally in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The main use of saffron is in cooking, due to its ability to impart color, flavor and aroma to foods and beverages. However, from the beginning of time it has also been considered a medicinal plant because it possesses therapeutic properties. It is included in Catalogues of Medicinal Plants and in the European Pharmacopoeias, and was part of a great number of compounded formulas from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The medicinal and pharmaceutical uses of this plant largely disappeared with the advent of synthetic and chemically produced drugs. However, in recent years there has been growing interest in demonstrating saffron’s already known bioactivity, which is attributed to the main components—crocetin and its glycosidic esters, called crocins, and safranal—and to the synergy between the compounds present in the spice for depression and other mental diseases and conditions.

A Long Blog Gap and a World Wide Pandemic

A world-wide Pandemic, who would have imagined this!  Building supplies increased nearly tenfold.  Factories closed.  Appliances, door and windows, and generally all building supplies, have taken, in some cases, eighteen months to arrive. 

Fortunately, I had committed to my team, and they to me, to a year of work, so plumbing, electric, foundation work and some brick work was finished! 

We had a local wood mill use the trees from the property to create shelving and custom cut the same type of joists, and siding they made in 1864.  One of my neighbors owns an antique building supply company who has graciously supplied old glass for the windows.  Plaster work continues, and I live in a constant state of dust and debris.  Although it’s been close to two years since closing, the lack of closets, and no need for dressy clothing, has kept us living partially in boxes.  My red Birkenstock clogs, and green rubber boots have become the new normal.  I have central air – YAY!  And the pool us running, of all the plumbing we expected not to work, the darn thing fired up and ran.  Well…  after pumping out the swampy rot, patching, painting and a few months of grading and repair.

I cut my own hair.  No one noticed.

I may have forgotten how to put on makeup, and use a curling iron, but I have wicked trowel skills.  I even have a flexible trowel to plaster columns.

Last year the pandemic kept me from ordering my saffron corms, and this spring, my distributor was infected with Covid.  Thankfully he recovered and I have 55,000 bulbs showing up at the end of August, with my first harvest expected in late October or early November.  EXCITED. SCARED.  The planning part is fun and easy, now it’s actually happening.  The unfortunate part is that I’m turning 60 this year and I should have done this a little closer to 40.  Bursitis.  Heel spurs.  UGH

We have removed over 35 trees, and I hope to finally plant the vegetable garden next spring.  Our permaculture process of smothering the part of the hay field and layering chips and compost should be perfect for 22!  Can you believe it.  One happy thing – I ordered 10 oak trees pre-inoculated with white Italian truffle spore, which are planted and thriving in the south east field.  Can we wait 4-5 years to harvest?  I guess we have to.

The first two bee hives are up and busy…  like bees.  Another fabulous neighbor to the rescue!  LOL.  None of the lavender or echinacea I planted last year survived, but the monarda by the pond is doing well.  Still have to figure out when or if I get any honey this year, but looking forward to the honey next year after our first saffron bloom.

More soon!

And so it begins!

March 5, 2020

Almost a year has passed. We settled on the Farm In Orange, aka “Old Manse”, on November 15, 2019. Christmas blew by us, and the weekends have been wholly consumed with packing the cars and driving back and forth! The house in northern Virginia sadly and slowly empties, getting ready for closing in late April. Almost two decades of memories bulldozed over, all my plantings silently begging me to take them to the farm. Will I get used to the hour and a half commute? Bittersweet moments.

I love the slow seduction of winding roads and the sweetness of fresh country air.

Our graceful old home is sadly in need of so much renovation! As we peel back the rotting plaster we find severed sewer pipes, rotting lathe, earthquake damage, dozens of layers of paint that have completely sealed up the windows (in one way a blessing in disguise, no drafty gaps and the other side – no ventilation)! The porte cochere doesn’t actually have any connected beams or joists.

Oh MY!!

My midnight jaunts with a little Woodford Reserve out on the balcony above, to lay and star gaze, have luckily not caused any cave-ins! So much to do. The attention deficit disorder has reared it’s pesky head. I have picked a corner in which to focus and start plastering.


Before and after in my corner…

Soon we attend our first farm equipment auction – I am pining for spring, the earth, and fresh green shoots poking their heads up through my dark red Davidson clay loam!

more here from Jordan Hoffman on the fabulous benefits of Northern Piedmont soils!
our lush green fields

The search has ended

May 15, 2019

Saturday mornings when everyone is sleeping in, and all is quiet, I immerse myself in Zillow exploring the valleys and rolling hills of Virginia.  You would find me looking into barns, researching used tractors reading up on green manures, dreaming of the day that it would become reality.   The reality of taking all the efforts and lessons learned from planting every square inch of my suburban yard to a sustainable farm.  Somewhere that my dog eared copy of Gaia's garden can lay peacefully on a shelf, in well deserved retirement, where it can gaze across green lush acres that would be the results of the content graciously given from it's pages. 

I was lured by carefully crafted photographs and well written descriptions of perfectly restored southern estates, only to find the land had the wrong slope or that the rail road bounded the longest length of the property (not the peaceful destination of my imagination), and even worse,  that there was no water.  On one of thee jaunts, my sister and I decided to stop by a vacant property  that was conveniently along the way.  As we rounded a stretch of ancient boxwoods the beautiful green  fields unfolded in front of us presenting a gradual southwest facing slope gently rolling up from a sparkling lake fed by two springs.  Absolute Perfection.  The land grabbed my heart.  An offer has been made, a website started, and this week The Farm in Orange is legally born.