It’s incredible what the power of a small flower can do. It can change the way a room looks like or even smells like. It can be the flavor enhancer in a special dish, embellish it or, put it simply, it can bright up your day with its delicate, yet intense, lilac-purple color. Saffron is said to be the most precious and expensive spice in the world even though, when we cook with it, we need so little that it is actually cheaper to use than many other spices. There is no doubt that its brilliant red color, alluring fragrance, and delicate nature, have made saffron one of the most coveted spices since its first use, over 5,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia. Just a small pinch of it will change your recipe into a bright sunny yellow colorful dish. For thousands of years, saffron’s unique flavor has been highly prized: a blend of bitter and slightly metallic flavors, combined with notes of chestnut honey and dry hay. For just as many millennia, its coloring and perfuming properties have been equally esteemed. Spices have always played a very important role in the past centuries. Being able to use them meant luxury and for this reason, they did not suit every pocket. It is said that in India, after the Buddha died, his priests made saffron the official color of Buddhist robes. In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, saffron was used to scent the baths and public halls, and Alexander the Great used for its medicinal properties. Saffron is the spice that literally built the walled hilltop town of San Gimignano, in the heart of Tuscany, which became famous and wealthy during the Middle Ages. The soil around the town, which already offered the ideal growing conditions for olive trees and vines, soon became the perfect land for the crocus sativus to grow. The flower started to be “exported” all over the Mediterranean and it became outrageously prized. Soon some patrician families living in San Gimignano, enormously enriched by this trade, decided to invest the profits in the construction of the famous tower-houses, reaching the incredible number of 72 of them. Thanks to the saffron trade, they automatically became the richest families in town and for that reason, able to control it. In those days, rich people used saffron in cooking, in liqueurs, in perfumes, in medicine. Not to mention that it was often used as currency. Spices meant money. Introduced to Italy through trade in port cities like Pisa, Venice and Genoa, the crocus sativus (a member of the Iridaceae family) is native to Asia Minor and it is cultivated in other areas in Italy: Sardinia, Abruzzo, Tuscany. In 2005, The saffron from San Gimignano got awarded with the PDO certification which guarantees its incredible high quality. What is saffron, exactly? In its whole form, it looks like silky red threads. These delicate filaments are actually the dried stigmas from the saffron flower. Each flower contains only three bright orange red stigmas, measuring about one half to three eights of an inch. These threads must be picked from each and every flower by hand, and more than 14,000 stigmas are needed to produce just one ounce. The flowers bloom for about two weeks between October and November and only at dawn. The harvest must be done quickly before the sun gets too strong causing the flowers to wilt. To give you an idea, 2 lbs of saffron require about 150,000 flowers. Just like vanilla, truffles and pine nuts, also saffron is incredibly expensive. Rightfully so, I say! Human labor is what the harvest requires, and this makes the final price skyrocket. Antonio De Masi is the young agronomist who founded the Azienda Agricola Punto Zero in Cecina (Livorno-Tuscany) The idea of having a saffron farm had been his dream since he was a student in agronomy. His connection to the land is strong and evocative. He simply loves to be in the fields, working the soil with naked hands, planting the bulbs with love and dedication. Then waiting and hoping. Finally watching the bulbs turning into shimmering flowers. How can you not be gentle with flowers? His reward comes in the Fall when the brown soil turns into a huge lilac-purple carpet. Surreal! Many people tried to discourage him from starting this business as Saffron is generally not cultivated close to the sea, but it is grown in hot dry climate and at different altitudes instead. Nah! I wish you could meet Antonio! He embodies the typical stubborn Tuscan spirit and thanks to his attitude and his studies he was convinced that the soil in Cecina was not a limit, but an opportunity. He decided to take up this challenge and he was right. Today he collaborates with Michelin starred chefs and his saffron is one of the best ever produced in Italy. If you find yourself in Tuscany around mid October, do yourself a favor: go visit him! And more important, do not forget to taste his saffron. As a chef, I use many different spices depending on the dish I make. Saffron is one of my favorites. I use it in risotto (like everyone else) in sea food recipes ( like everyone else) but also in desserts and cookies. A panna cotta scented with saffron for example. To die for! White chocolate and saffron ganache. Sinful! Sergio Dondoli, best gelato maker in the world, pays a tribute to San Gimignano making the incredible Crema di Santa Fina ( patron Saint of the town) gelato which involves, saffron and pine nuts. A real ode to Tuscany.
This spice seems to have endless possibilities in the culinary world. It is so versatile it can literally be used in every part of any meal, but just like many spices, the right amount is determinant as it can break or make a dish. And you? Where would you use saffron?? As the saying goes, waiting increases desire…and I am waiting to hear from you.
Yields about 40 3-inch cookies
2 large egg yolks plus 1 large whole egg
1 1/8 cup sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 tsp lemon zest
1 ½ tsp saffron threads
2 Tbs warm whole milk
3 2/3 cups unbleached AP flour
1 tsp baking powder
Egg wash (1 whole egg whisked with 1 tsp water)
Confectioner’s sugar for dusting
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat eggs with sugar until pale and creamy, about 5 minutes. Add butter, lemon zest, saffron and milk and blend until all ingredients have been completely incorporated. In a separate bowl, sift flour and baking powder, then gently add it to the mixture. Blend to combine. Transfer the dough to a floured surface and with floured hands, form a log and wrap it with plastic. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line a large baking sheet with silpad or parchment. Return dough to floured surface and roll it into a 1/3-inch-thick rectangle. Using a 3-inch round cookie cutter, form cookies. Place them on lined baking sheet and brush them with egg wash.Bake for just 10- 12 minutes until surface turns golden. Transfer to a rack to cool, then dust with confectioner’s sugar. Enjoy!