Why do I do things like this?
Scour Mumbai for diamond bangles minutes before I have to leave for the airport? Endlessly scheme (at 3 AM) to open a café in my future biodynamic garden, complete with fragrant antique roses and ancient apple trees?
And now: Grow saffron.
This is not exactly the saffron zone. For that you have to go to Iran or Kashmir. Maybe Spain or Morocco or Greece. There’s even a field or two in France. But not North Carolina with its drenching hurricanes and hungry squirrels.
And there’s another little problem: harvesting enough to use for cooking. It takes 150 autumn-blooming crocus sativus flowers to produce enough stigmas—the long red threads in the picture above—for one gram—that’s .035 ounce—of dried saffron. No wonder it’s the world’s most expensive spice.
Clearly this is more of a lark than a serious endeavor.
I’m just hoping to get a generous pinch, enough to gild a savory lobster and new potato stew, or infuse a pot of basmati rice with the spice’s bright metallic flavor.
So far I’ve done everything wrong.
The first step was to plant 100 corms: These are plump café au lait-colored bulbs covered with soft straw-like hairs. I didn’t plant early enough or deep enough or think to amend the soil with manure or any other fertilizer. I certainly didn’t sprinkle them with cayenne pepper to deter the squirrels who are probably now popping them into their mouths like ripe plums.
No, I just stuck half of them into odd, sunny corners of the garden and filled up some empty flower pots with the rest.
But guess what? Today I discovered a few pale shoots emerging from the soil. So I must be doing something right—or maybe you just can’t keep a good corm down.
Sometime around Halloween—and hopefully before the first frost—they’ll bloom. Three slender buds will emerge from each bulb. Then one morning the delicate lavender petals will unfurl to reveal a trio of precious red stigma emerging from the dark purple center of each flower. The trick is to pluck them without getting any of the adjacent yellow pollen on them—if you do, the saffron will have no flavor.
But here’s the question: Will I have the nerve to pick the flowers, strip away the glorious petals, carefully snip only the stigmas with my fingernails, and dry them in a very, very slow oven—in order to come up with perhaps a quarter teaspoon of saffron?