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High Ridge Saffron, Orange

Renowned as the world’s most expensive spice by weight, Saffron is the highly prized stigmas of a gorgeous purple flower known as Crocus Sativus. Saffron is a vital but often subtle ingredient in many traditional recipes that a lot of us would be familiar with including Risotto Milanese (Italy), Paella (Spain) and Bouillabaise (France).

We are extremely lucky to be able to stock locally grown Saffron at A Slice of Orange. It is certainly something that lots of people are keen to try and we love chatting to customers about new and different ways of using it in meals.

The suppliers of our “High Ridge” Saffron have been quietly and diligently nurturing their Saffron bulbs for almost 10 years now and I was delighted to meet with them recently to discuss the finer details of Saffron ‘farming’. I was surprised to discover that Saffron is actually a bulb so most activity prior to harvest occurs underground. The Saffron bulb “Crocus Sativus” originates from Central Asia and today most Saffron is grown in Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco and Italy with Iran producing almost 94% of the world’s total production.

When I enquire about why our suppliers decided to grow such a delicate and labour-intensive crop, they explain that they were inspired to grow their own Saffron after experiencing difficulty finding the spice when living in Sydney. They already owned a property at Triangle Flat, near Orange and, as it was the perfect climate, they bought some bulbs from Victoria and planted them at their farm. Here they are cultivated in slightly raised beds where they like an optimal mix of friable soil (well draining soil that crumbles easily), full sun and minimal rain in summer. Luckily, given the local climate, the bulbs can tolerate snow.

Saffron stigmas peeking out from the flower head - almost ready for harvest.

From little things, yummy things grow

When “High Ridge” first commenced planting they started with 100 bulbs. After 5 years, and due to the annual multiplication of the bulbs, they were required to dig them up and replant them across more beds. Saying that, Crocus Sativus isn’t an annual bulb in the true sense, as they do not require separation and replanting on a yearly basis. Interestingly, however, there is a village in Italy that treats them as such.

The growth of a crop is dependent on this multiplication – every year they divide in the ground with the ‘daughters’ growing above the ‘mother’ bulb. As they crowd each other out and reach the surface they are separated and replanted but the mother bulb dies every year so it is the daughter bulbs that carry on. Incredibly, approximately 200 plants are required to obtain one gram of stigmas! 

Open flowers with stigmas exposed and ready for immediate harvesting. Note the 3 stigmas in every flower head. 

The plants flower in Autumn but nothing shows on the surface until they are almost ready for harvest. The mauve flower or the leaves may surface first (or both together) but once the flower rises out of the ground it must be picked very quickly before it opens to ensure unadulterated stigmas. The picking process is very intensive as all flowers need to be picked by hand, opened and have the three stigmas removed manually. Last year there was a flower with five stigmas but as a rule all flowers only have three stigmas.  Harvest takes approximately four to six weeks at "High Ridge" and once all flowers have been picked the plant continues to grow leaves that then form a lovely green carpet across the beds.

It is still possible to pick the stigmas after the flower has opened but by this time the flower’s pollen has been released and it is considered to have then slightly affected the flavour of the stigma itself.

Proving popular

Unsurprisingly the reception for “High Ridge” Saffron has been excellent among our customers and the few local retailers that stock it. We sold out of the product before the next harvest was ready so it really is first in best dressed at the moment while production is still small.

Time for the tasting

When I ask our growers the favourite way to use this amazing spice they say it is probably Risotto Milanese – the dish that inspired their initial search for Saffron in Sydney. They do also encourage more unconventional uses such as sprinkling the stigmas over a roast chicken or using them in dessert such as panna cotta. They remind me that the best way to extract the colour and flavour from Saffron threads is to steep them in a small amount of hot water for at least 30 minutes (if not overnight) before using them and it is also important to store Saffron in a dark, dry place.

Harvest time at "High Ridge" is April/ May so we now have the 2011 Saffron stigmas in store for your enjoyment! You can buy it in our online store here.

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