Some plants are just special. Crocus sativa is one of them. The stunning purple flowers occur in mid autumn from amongst grassy like foliage. At flowering the plant is about 35cm tall. Then in mid spring the foliage dies back down to avoid the hot dry summer. It is from these pretty flowers that you can harvest the most precious of all spices. Indeed by weight it is many times more valuable than gold – and tastes nicer.
Cultivation is not hard so long as some basic conditions are provided. They like cool a wet spring followed by a hot dry summer and then a cooler moist autumn. They like a good well drained soft loam with plenty of sun. They will tolerate cold frosty winters down to minus five degrees.
Saffron is a sterile type of Crocus from the eastern Mediterranean where it has been harvested for in excess of 3000 years. The stigmas in the delicately scented saffron flowers are dried and used in cooking to colour, flavour, as a perfume and as a medicine. They are delicate and thread-like, each measuring 2.5 – 4 cm with a bright orange-red color. High quality saffron has a uniform color whilst, that bearing white streaks or light patches is inferior.
The stigmas need to be harvested early in the morning before the new flowers wilt. They then need to be dried as soon as possible – 100C for 3minutes, 65C for 7minutes or 45C for 100 minutes. Once the drying is completed the saffron should be quickly put in an air tight container and stored in a cool dark place. The saffron can then be used as a powder or an infusion. The latter is best and can be produced by soaking up to 30 stigmas in 50ml of hot water for 24 hours. Use in rice, couscous and a range of soups, fish Middle Eastern dishes.