Saffron safari

Saffron safari

Aylin Öney Tan -
Saffron safari When fall leaves start to blanket the earth, I always feel I’m drawn into forests and mountains. As if the sirens of mermaids spell-bind sailors, I feel like an invisible forest fairy is calling me toward the silent deepness of the woods. I’ve always been inclined to wild earthy tastes; forest fruits, berries of all kinds, mushrooms, chestnut honey, game; whatever comes from untouched terrains.

One taste associated with wilderness is saffron for me. Though saffron is most usually cultivated, for me it reflects a wildly woody flavor that evokes dreams of an adventurous hunt for the elusive spice.
Saffron is rare. One truly wild thing about saffron is that it is wildly expensive. Saffron is the dried stigmas of the flower Crocus sativus. There are only three female stigmas in each flower. It is a meticulous task to gather these three little threads. The toil starts early in the morning just as the flowers start to open. Before the noon sun comes the work in the field has to be completed, but once the gathering is over, the real work starts. Now each stigma has to be painstakingly taken from the flowers. A whole day’s work can be as little as a large cup; it takes almost 25,000 blossoms or 75,000 handpicked stigmas for just approximately 100 grams of spice.

In Turkey the market is dominated by Iranian saffron, which is one of the world’s finest. Much praised Kashmiri saffron is extremely hard to find outside its territory; even in India, it is usually mixed with Iranian, Pakistani, or Afghan saffron. No one seems to appreciate this one huge benefit of being neighbors with Iran; we can get top-quality saffron for a fraction of the price compared to the posh gourmet markets in the rest of the world, thanks to our porous borders. Even the local produce of Safranbolu, once the main supplier for the Ottoman court, can sometimes exceed the price tag of the Iranian one because of the very limited yield, as little as a mere 2 kilograms in recent years. Unfortunately, this precious spice was almost completely extinct in Safranbolu until very recently. It is simply sad that the use of saffron in Turkish cookery is also slowly vanishing, which is such a shame when you think of its wonders.

Saffron has a seducing smell, an attractive aroma reminiscent of resins, a unique scent that is breathtaking and dazzling. It takes only a whiff of saffron to make one an instant addict. Once you know the real thing you can never do with a lesser product or a substitute. One addictive aspect of saffron, I believe, is hidden in its medicinal properties. Since ancient times, saffron has been praised for its therapeutic qualities. It is known to be good for depression. Recent research has revealed that saffron increases serotonin activity and helps alleviate depression symptoms. Melancholy, misery, and the gloominess of fall can melt away with just one cup of saffron tea warmly sipped under the cuddling warmth of a blanket. The strong sense of well-being saffron evokes is a feeling of luxury alone. It is like listening to a beautiful violin playing. A few strands of saffron in a cup of hot water, perhaps with a few drops of rose water and a spoon of honey is the ultimate spirit lifter, of course if you manage to forget about the fortune you invested in it. Saffron was once also believed to be an aphrodisiac, but that must be again about the thrill of the thought of all the money splashed. It is true that the stigmas of crocus make the most expensive spice in terms of weight, but it is worth every microgram; it just takes a pinch of the golden touch to make you fall into the lap of luxury or seduction.

Contrary to most bulbous flowers, the saffron blooming season is in autumn. The deep red stigmas with an insanely deep yellow tint are a perfect match to the fall leaves. Now is the time to harvest the golden touch and embrace the fall leaves and autumn melancholy.

Don’t Miss: Next weekend, Oct. 24-26, there is a very special “Saffron Harvest Tour” to Safranbolu, organized by the YESAM Culinary Arts Center, The tour is hosted by Gülevi, the one and only truly tastefully restored boutique hotel in Safranbolu, For those interesting in joining from Ankara, a transfer can be arranged. Who knows, if my schedule permits, I may surrender to my forest fairy and show up, pick a few strands of saffron, lift my moody gloomy spirits and dream of the good days to come!

Recipe of the Week: Saffron and rice have an eternal affinity with each other. All culinary cultures have embraced recipes marrying saffron and rice as their foremost culinary pinnacles. It is Paella in Spain; Risotto Milanese in Italy; Saffron Pilaff in Turkey and Iran. The ultimate royal pudding of the Ottoman Empire was “zerde,” a sweet rice jelly perfumed with saffron and rice water.

The finest recipe so far comes from the Gülevi in Safranbolu; owner İbrahim Canbulat tracked down many recipes and came up with this one: Leave 2 Turkish coffee cups of rice in water for two hours. Meanwhile, dissolve a generous pinch of saffron in ½ a cup of rosewater (use the same cup). Drain and wash the rice; put in a pan with 10 cups of water and cook for 20 minutes until the rice grains are very tender but not mushy. Add 250 g. sugar, stir and let cook for a further 5 minutes. If you put sugar in beforehand it will toughen the rice. Add the saffron and rosewater. Dissolve 3 tablespoons of arrowroot or rice starch in ½ a cup water and slowly stir in the pudding. Bring to a simmer for a minute or so and remove it from the head when it is slightly thickened and translucent. Divide into individual serving cups. Garnish with pine nuts, pomegranate seeds and black currants or barberries soaked in rosewater. Divine!

Bite of the week

Fork of the Week: SafranTat Confectionary in Safranbolu makes a sublime Saffron Turkish Delight. Another unknown asset of Safranbolu is that it is home to the finest “lokum,” a.k.a. Turkish Delight. In order to witness the production process, join YESAM’s tour, or go and taste it yourself,

Cork of the Week: Saffron and rose water are a marriage made in heaven. Try this combination in a golden martini. My choice for this majestic cocktail is the sublime Belvedere vodka. Infuse a generous pinch of saffron in pure rosewater. Just a small Turkish coffee cup will be the ideal size. Sweeten with a teaspoon of high mountain honey. Keep this infusion in a small flacon and carry in your purse. Next time you order your Belvedere, have it stirred with ice and strained into a martini glass. Just pour in your magic potion and wait for the miracle to happen… I promise, you’ll get lost in this saffron-infused, scintillating sensation!