Friday, 20 November 2009

Looking good at the moment...

Crocus sativus
There is nothing quite like the pale purple-blue of this crocus, appearing as it does at the fag-end of the flowering season when pretty much all else is over and done.
It's a delicate thing, and can struggle in the gusts and heavy rain of late autumn, but with a few days of still weather and sunshine it's possible to get a great show. Pushing through the fallen leaves of a magnolia, this bloom shows the close-up loveliness of the flower, with the orange stamens glowing in the heart of it.
The stamens are the valuable culinary spice, saffron, and for this reason the bulb has been cultivated for centuries. Valuable for two reasons - the labour involved in harvesting any amount worth having is intensive, and the flavour is unique: there is no substitute for this curious warm, fragrant spice, nothing comparable for adding to cakes, bread, stews, puddings.
Highly prized in Northern Europe during the medieval period, when mixtures of savoury and sweet were all the rage, the spice was cultivated on a large scale around, for instance, Saffron Walden in Essex. Also essential in the cookery of the Levant, saffron is grown all around the Mediterranean, featuring heavily in the cuisines of Spain, Morocco and the Middle East - the finest spice is now grown in Spain, on the plains of La Mancha. Never buy ground saffron - like all valuable powders it is easily adulterated - but look for the whole dried stamens. Steer well clear, in particular, of the huge mounds of orange powder paint on display in the souks of Marrakech and markets of Spain, which clearly cannot be what the vendor claims. Invest well, enjoy the flowers and then relish your own saffron in a bouillabaisse, tagine, paella or humble saffron bun.

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