In ancient Greece hetaera courtesans used saffron in their perfumes, mascaras, and ointments. In Ancient Persia saffron was used as an offering to the gods as well as in body wash (how convenient.)In 3rd century China there is evidence that it was used to aromatize wine. In Egypt Cleopatra was said to use the stuff in her baths as an aphrodisiac. And in Europe, during the 14th century Black Plague it was employed for its medicinal qualities. Tonight however, in my 21st century Brooklyn kitchen, it was used to recreate a very popular Moroccan dish called Tagine Djaj Bi Zaytoun Wal Hamid or rather, Tagine of Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives.
Through out my modest career as an amateur cook, I have always been too fearful to make use of the spice, and at $40-$65 and ounce who can blame me. Why does it cost so much? Well, it takes 150 flowers to render 1 gram of dried saffron threads. Thats thousands of flowers an ounce!
The first time I heard about saffron was from Jacque, the Patriarch of the Ponsolle family and owner of the family run restaurant, Pergola Des Artistes. On any given evening you can find Jacque behind the bar sneaking sips of the house red from a port sized glass and, with rosy cheeks, making passionate conversation with customers. On this evening in particular I was sitting at the bar enjoying a healthy portion of Cog au Vin, as Jacque introduced me to the most expensive spice on the market.
“Zis, zis is the gold of spice.” he exclaimed holding a tiny vile of the stuff up to my face.
“It cost more than the marijuana,” he whispered with a grin, before downing yet another mini glass of red. It made me wonder how up to speed Jacque was on the marijuana market; he did seem rather jolly singing along to Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet.
The whole thing seemed a bit extravagant to me. I was young at the time, 19, and I had only just begun assisting my boyfriend, a chef, in our home kitchen. I couldn’t have told you the difference between cinnamon and coriander or clove and turmeric and so I forgot all about the gold of spice. As I began to learn how to cook, I steered well away from the costly seasoning, always believing that it was way too lavish for my limited cooking abilities. That was, until I stumbled upon this recipe in Claudia Rodens cookbook, Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon. The recipe seemed so simple so…peasant, that I finally gained the courage to buy myself a vile of the legendary spice.
I made a run to Sahadi’s to pick up the necessary ingredients, saffron, pickled lemons, and olives, and I literally ran home excited about my new addition to the spice rack. The recipe was very easy: caramelize the onions, add spices, sear the chicken, braise, then add lemon rinds and olives, simmer a bit more then garnish with chopped parsley.
I must say, that with the accompaniment of a Tomato, Orange and Mint Salad, and Orange Blossom Scented Wheat Berries pilaf, it was a rather extravagant meal for only one person - let just say I won’t be taking any saffron infused baths tonight.
Because there were other new ingredients for me, namely the pickled lemon rind, I cannot say that the saffron was worth the $5 a gram I payed for it, however I felt privileged to sit down to such a stunning meal. The color was vibrant, and the savory brine of the chicken mellowed against of the cool minted tomatoes and the sweet aroma of the what berries. Perhaps there is room in my spice rack for a new permanent resident.