I've long desired to see saffron being harvested somewhere in the world — Spain, India, Morocco, or maybe Iran, the world's leading producer. But I never imagined I'd fulfill that wish by driving two hours from my Philadelphia home.
Saffron entered my consciousness when I was a student living in Madrid, where it gilded the paella and enriched the fabada, the bean and sausage stew that my landlady made for me from her native Asturias. Saffron, however, became a staple in my own spice cabinet once I met my English-Iranian husband. As his mother taught me how to make rich Persian dishes like khoresh bademjan, an eggplant and meat stew laced with cinnamon and saffron, and khoresh ghormeh sabzi, a stew made with loads of fresh herbs and perfumed by saffron, dried limes and fenugreek, she would load me up with packets of Iranian saffron on each visit to London or mail them to me when I was running low.
But Pennsylvania saffron? I was incredulous.
It turns out there is a rich tradition of saffron cultivation that reaches back centuries in Lancaster County, home to the Pennsylvania Dutch. (Dutch, by the way, is a derivative of Deutsch, meaning "German" — the Pennsylvania Dutch were German immigrants who settled in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries.)
So when I was invited by Chef Eli Kulp, who helms Fork, High Street on Market, and a.kitchen here in Philadelphia (you may know him as one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs) to join him and a handful of staff on a field trip to harvest saffron, it was an opportunity I could not refuse.
There are only a few people still growing saffron in Pennsylvania, and Justin Hulshizer is one of them. He hails from a group of Pennsylvania Dutch who earned the nickname "Yellow Dutch" for their love of saffron: the lucrative spice they not only sold to the international market, but also incorporated into their own cooking. Justin inherited 300 saffron crocus bulbs (technically, corms) from his grandmother, and in roughly seven years' time, Justin has grown the collection to 3,000 bulbs, which he has planted in beds at his home in Berks County, just across the border from Lancaster County.
With rain beading on the crocus leaves, which are nearly as thin as grass blades, we knelt down to harvest the flowers that had braved the weather for us. Saffron crocuses love hot, dry weather — that's why they grow so well in regions around the Mediterranean. But unlike many of the ornamental crocuses you plant in your garden to bloom at spring, saffron blooms in the fall. And as soon as the purple flowers emerge, even before they've fully opened, Justin plucks them from their stems before the wild rabbits can get them first.
With a couple handfuls of flowers, we retreated into Justin's house where the smell of chicken corn noodle soup bubbling on the stove — a traditional, rib-sticking Pennsylvania Dutch dish — was the very fragrance of hospitality. As his wife and her twin sister prepared a table with homemade scones, Justin's pickled beets and eggs, and cottage cheese to be mixed with apple butter, Justin showed us how to carefully peel back a petal on each flower to expose the stamens — the pollen-producing organs of a flower. These stamens are the saffron. They were surprisingly thick and velvety, with an orangey-red color that was almost electric. With a ginger tug, we pulled them out of the flowers and laid them on a plate.
Justin took the plate into the kitchen and dried the saffron briefly in his toaster oven. It came out looking like the shriveled threads I was familiar with. He slipped them into a little paper envelope and crushed them into a powder with his thumb. Into the pot of soup the saffron went, its distinct fragrance now permeating the kitchen as the broth turned golden.
The soup was simply delicious. And everything else for that matter, too.
Justin's wife, who also comes from a Pennsylvania Dutch family, didn't grow up seasoning her food with saffron. In fact, it was a taste she had to work hard to acquire — an evident act of love for her husband, whose "Yellow Dutch" upbringing meant he didn't discover until the age of 22 that foods like chicken pot pie didn't always come yellow. It is simply a spice he can not live without.
And lucky for all of us who were at his table that day.
Justin's saffron is available at the Pennsylvania General Store in Philly's Reading Terminal Market. That is, if Chef Eli doesn't snatch it all up himself. Some of last year's crop went into a rabbit dish he served at Fork and aptly named "Saffron's Revenge."
Eli is dedicated to cooking with Pennsylvania's own bounty and to introducing his guests to local culinary traditions.
Few of us would have guessed that that would include saffron.