The $5,000 Spice You Should Be Cooking with Every Day
On a bucolic farm in Lake County, California, a rare spice is lovingly cultivated, dried, and packed by a devoted cadre of crocus obsessives. We join this committed crew at their annual harvest feast for a vivid array of delicious dishes and drinks.
It’s not often that a chef and a farmer are able to sit down to dinner and enjoy the fruits of their combined labor.
But that is exactly what’s happening at Peace & Plenty Farm in Kelseyville, California, on this early autumn day. Chef Arnon Oren and farmers Melinda Price and Simon Avery are in a former horse paddock strewn with bales of hay for seats, slabs of wood from fallen trees covered with plates, and platters of dishes tinged yellow and gold by saffron grown right here on this picture-perfect property ringed with white fences in a valley of small farms and low-slung houses.
Today they have assembled a few friends to enjoy last year’s bounty before this year’s harvest commences. Roasted chicken glistens gold upon gold, deviled eggs bedevil with yolks as yellow as the sun, and poached pear galette, warmed in the oven, is draped with a melting dollop of saffron-tinged vanilla ice cream. It’s this dessert that got the chef to finally take a seat and savor a bite of his own food. This will be the most leisurely dinner of the next two months for Price and Avery, as the harvest is only weeks away and the busiest time of their year will overtake every waking minute. When they raise a glass of grapefruit, gin, and saffron syrup, and toast one another’s good fortune, you know they mean it.
Peace & Plenty is a rarity in the world of saffron, as most of the saffron you find in stores comes from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Of the handful of small farms growing saffron in the United States, Peace & Plenty is the largest and best known, though in the world of domestic saffron “large” is a relative term. For most of the year, Price and Avery tend to the farm with a few helpers, bringing on interns to help during harvest. Oren is an alum of Chez Panisse and the proprietor of Anaviv, a catering and culinary events company; he cooks pop-up dinners at Peace & Plenty.
While the rise-and-sleep-by-the-sun pace of agriculture puts a premium on time, saffron might be even more demanding. The flower Crocus sativus plays hard to get, living bulb-like under the ground and dormant for much of the year, punching through the dirt and flowering for just a few weeks in early autumn, giving up its pistils to those with enough patience to wait and enough fortitude to work the harvest that requires endless stooping, plucking, separating, and drying the spice in a sprint. This exceptional amount of labor accounts for a fair part of the $5,000-per-pound price this culinary delight demands.
By color alone, saffron is the essence of ethereal: The delicate flower stigma and styles are a deep crimson, though they stain fingers and food a vivid gold. The crocus blooms from which these filaments are plucked each fall are contrasting light purple in hue. As an ingredient saffron beguiles, too. Its flavor is equally elusive when infused into water or oil or butter, imbuing both savory and sweet dishes with honeyed, earthy, and floral notes, tasting of hay, a little pungent, but lingering and layered and ultimately luxurious. Enjoy its beauty on these pages and in these recipes.