Wednesday, December 26, 2012

If You Only Try One New Flavor in 2013...

Saffron has a gorgeous color, a subtle flavor and a long history.... Seriously long - how's 50,000 years sound? If you know anything about what makes me tick, you know I am geeked up about the cultural ties that connect us to our ancestors in prehistory. 50,000 years ago, artists in present-day Iran used saffron-based pigments to make paintings in caves. If that doesn't stop you mid-paragraph, nothing will. Now, they were using saffron that long ago, but once our forebears figured out the basics of selection, they stopped settling for collecting saffron and began cultivating it.  Our ancestors began cultivating saffron about three thousand years ago. 

Think about that: 3000 years ago, foodies -- geeks just like ourselves -- valued saffron so much that they chose specific plants (the ones with the longest threads), protected and bred these carefully selected plants with each other. The picture below is of a Bronze Age (3500-1200 BCE) fresco, and it's called The Saffron Gatherers. It shows two women harvesting the threads by hand, just as they are gathered today.

We know that ancient artists valued saffron for its pigment, but it came to be used for many different purposes. Saffron remained important as a colorant, and came to be used as a deodorizer, medicine, and as a flavoring agent. As a fabric dye, it can be used to impart hues from luminous yellow to rich red.  These colors do fade over time, but become no less lovely. Because this usage requires so much saffron, robes dyed in this way were reserved for the upper echelons of ancient society. Alexander the Great used saffron-infused baths to treat battle wounds, and Cleopatra took the baths because she believed they made lovemaking more pleasurable.  

You know that saffron is indigenous to the region near present-day Iran and India, but it can grow on any continent except Antarctica, including our own. Having said that, most saffron is still produced in that same region, gathered by hand and as a result is the world's most expensive spice, made more rare and expensive by the presence of Muslim terrorists in the area of its cultivation. 

It has long been prized by chefs for its color and flavor.  If you've been following along, you know that the bar follows the kitchen in most matters.  Saffron is used in some famous spirits, including the Italian herbal liqueur, Strega and the French Chartreuse. In modern times, Royal Saffron liqueur represents this spice.

Saffron's flavor has been likened to hay or straw, with metallic honey notes.  I have been experimenting with it, and encourage you to so the same to create a complex, unique and luxurious cocktail for yourself and the ones you love.

Saffron Cocktail #1
1.5 oz. Saffron-infused Great Lakes Distillery's Peach Brandy
1 oz. Honey Syrup
1 oz. Lemon Juice
1 oz. Orange Juice
Lemon Twist

(I made this slightly sweet, refreshing drink for a friend who exclaimed, "This tastes like a great breakfast drink!")

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