By Carolyn Best
A fresco called “The Saffron Gatherers” in the Minoan settlement of Akrotini on the Aegean island of Santorini depicts people at work selectively breeding the saffron crocus to cause the plant to produce ever longer stigmas. The fresco has been carbon dated to the late Bronze Age. We know that 50,000 years ago the golden colour of those stigmas was made into pigments used to depict beasts in the prehistoric palaces of northwestern Iran. And before that, the Sumerians used wild-growing saffron for medicines and magical potions. This small part of the crocus that yields the culinary, medicinal and artistic medium of saffron was an article of long-distance trade before the peak of the Minoan palace culture; the frescoes of Crete depicted the flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys.
The ancient Persians wove threads of saffron into royal carpets and textiles, as well as using the stigmas to formulate dyes, perfumes, drugging agents and aphrodisiacs. In the Illiad, Homer consistently and exclusively used the epithet “krokopelos” (krokos being the dyestuff made from saffron), translated as “the golden yellow colour,” to describe Eos, goddess of the dawn.
Brought to Europe by the Romans, saffron was used by the monks of medieval Europe to illuminate their manuscripts with a glue made of egg white and saffron to produce their golden yellow glaze. And saffron, which had already enjoyed high status for millennia, became widely grown in Europe and remained a necessity in the royal courts until, in the land used for its cultivation, it came to be displaced by the crops of the New World. Corn and potatoes supplanted saffron and the wealthy turned to the new tastes of coffee, tea, chocolate and vanilla.
Still today, saffron is indispensable in the culinary usage of many traditions: in India saffron is the flavourer and colourer of milk, milk sweets and biryani; in Spain it is necessary for paella, in Italy for risotto, in Iran for the jeweled rice called khoresh. Laboriously harvested, by weight more valuable than gold, saffron brings the touches of elegance and wealth to any dish in which it appears.
Carolyn Best is the former proprietor/ chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom.
Saffron, Tomato and Kidney Bean Masala
2 lbs ripe red Italian plum tomatoes, or one 28 oz. tin crushed tomatoes
3 tbsp butter or ghee
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp saffron threads, crushed
2 tsp sea salt, or to taste
½ cup heavy cream
2 cups cooked kidney beans, drained, or contents of one can drained
Purée the tomatoes in a blender. Melt the butter or ghee in a saucepan and gently sauté the herbs and spices. Pour in the tomato purée and simmer with occasional stirring until thick. Stir in the heavy cream and kidney beans. Serve over basmati rice.
Riesling Wine Jelly
By Marisa Romano
Red or white? Glasses are filled and risen to a toast. I smell and sip the wine. I pause briefly to perceive it with my tongue and feel it on the back of my throat, a quick mindful moment to notice and recall all that is behind the glass of the national beverage of the Roman Empire, the elixir of Bacchus’ followers and the symbol of Christianity.
Last October I spent a morning in the vineyard. The opportunity arose when I accepted the invitation to a wedding in Prince Edward County, one of Ontario’s newest viticultural areas. Led into temptation, I joined the “harvest brigade” at By Chadsey’s Cairns Winery & Vineyard, an estate located just outside Wellington and established in early 2000 on the soil of a heritage farm.
Grape harvest in the county is a vine grower’s victory over the weather. With its winter temperatures that dip way down and spring frosts that strike just as the buds mature, the climate is not very friendly to grapes. Growers defy it by bending down and burying the vines in late fall, before the first hard frost hits. In the spring, the soil is removed and the canes are tied up again so the buds can grow into leaves and flowers, and flowers into fruit ready for harvest in the fall.
And there I was in October, walking on wet grass between rows of grapevines, face to face with plump bunches of ripened berries hanging from twisted vines among crisp and bristly green leaves wet with the rain of the previous day. It reminded me of the time, before I arrived in Canada, when I used to walk along rows of grapevines in the hills of Piedmont – mostly Barbera and Nebbiolo grapes over there – monitoring the ripening dark bunches for growth of gray mould – the same gray fuzz that grows on rotting strawberries. Gray mould is one of the most common and destructive diseases in grapes worldwide, the cause of lost harvests and dreaded for its ability to pass on off-flavours and aromas to the wine while altering its tinge.
“I would have you picking the Chardonnay, but the soil is too muddy over there,” declared Richard Johnston, owner, with Vida Zalnieriunas, of By Chadsey’s Cairns estate. So we picked Riesling instead, where the soil was dryer and the boots did not sink into the mud.
Johnston seemed pretty happy with Riesling grapes this fall. The cool and wet climate has allowed for a good growth of the gray mould so familiar to me. Here, the drier conditions that followed the wet phase favoured the shrivelling of affected grapes, concentrating the sugar in the fruit juice and converting the dreaded infection into what is known as “noble rot.” Now with the return of the wet weather it was time to harvest quickly so, clippers in hand, I carefully collected the fuzzy wrinkled bunches, something that I would never have thought I would appreciate.
“What is the difference that noble rot makes to the wine?” I later asked Martin Carney, a neighbour and independent sommelier who provides his services to restaurants and wine lovers.
“The high sugar content of the grapes gives wine with high viscosity – you can see it by tilting the glass of wine – higher alcohol content and lower acidity. In comparison, wine from mould-free grapes is crispier and clearer, dryer on the palate.
It turns out that the world’s best sweet wines come from grapes kissed by noble rot. Their aromas and flavours are rich and complex – described by sommeliers as “honey” – and often they improve with age. Although we carefully avoid serving mouldy grapes on our cheese board, we can certainly say that sometimes mould makes the wine perfect.
After growing their estate into a very respectable winery, Johnston and Zalnieriunas are now ready to sell and pass the torch to a “passionate wine lover” who can bring the farm forward. Could that be you?
Marisa Romano is a plant pathologist by training and worked at the University of Turin on chemical control of gray mould in grapes. She is a regular contributor to the Glebe Report on food.