Upcoming Moroccan Camel Caravan on my horizon, adding to my Moroccan Story. I’m always looking for interesting activities for myself and our clients. I’m addicted to Moroccan spice souks; actually, any spice vendor is a travel temptation. My recent brief Mediterranean @SeaDream yacht adventure provided a visit to tiny Lipari Island, wandering the narrow cobblestone streets, from the Marina Corte along the via Garibaldi, walk up the hill of colorfully decorated homes. Loop back around by way of via del Corso Emmanue. I discovered a little vegetable shop – and voila, dried spices, stuffed bags of fragrant oregano! A generous handful will improve a homemade spaghetti sauce or enhance an oregano flecked pasta.
Saffron is one of Morocco’s leading exports. The Arabs brought Saffron to the kingdom of Morocco around the 10th century. My first visit to an organic saffron farm is on my schedule. The small farm grows ISO certified Class 1 Saffron, known as red gold, due to the high value.
Saffron is valued for its varied uses – from being a gourmet ingredient to being an aphrodisiac, who knew? Being the most expensive spice in the world, hopefully a small dose will stimulate amour!
Although it’s grown in only a few regions throughout the country, it’s sold in the spice markets. Taliouine, a little mountain village in the south of Morocco, and the Ourika Valley at the foot of the Atlas Mountains near Marrakech are two well-known regions where saffron crocuses grow. Taliouine itself is small – just under 6,000 people – but produces more saffron than any other place in Africa. Every November, a festival is held at harvest time and people from around the world come to watch and celebrate. Count me in!
In Morocco the saffron is harvested between October through December whenever the six-petalled flowers appear. During this time, the local Berber women start picking the flowers at dawn. Picking the flowers in early morning ensures that the unique compounds within the filaments are preserved. The bees love the pollen in the saffron flowers and jostle with the pickers for access to the flowers. Which is why after the stigmas have been removed, the local farm will leave the flowers outside for the bees to collect the remaining pollen.
As soon as a picker’s basket is full of flowers, they are taken to the processing room where the three precious red filaments – or stigmas – are carefully detached from the stem. The red filaments are dried in a dehydrator and subsequently lose 80% of their weight, so for every 100 grams of saffron filaments harvested, only 20 grams of dry saffron will remain.
Saffron can only be harvested and processed by hand as its petals must be peeled away gently to collect the delicate saffron threads. Consequently, an ounce of saffron is valued at more than an ounce of gold.
In ancient Persia saffron threads were woven into textiles, ritually offered to divinities, and used in dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body baths. Saffron threads were scattered across beds on the wedding night of newlywed couples, who were also offered saffron powder in hot milk as an aphrodisiac.
How to tell real from fake saffron? In my experience, many spice vendors aggressively peddle saffron, a complete switch off for me. In Istanbul, again at a spice market, the shop owner tried to entice me with their premium saffron. His hard sell of all products was offensive and in his thick accent, I was pretty certain he was calling me BABY, after every offering. Benjamin had given me his spice list; I held to the list and declined the saffron. When we walked out of the shop, my friend said Gwen – I think he was calling you BABY with each offering! It became our nickname for each other for the remainder of the trip! Hey Baby, are you ready for cocktails?
The Test: drop a few threads in water, real saffron slowly turns water yellow. The color change may take up to an hour. The saffron threads themselves retain their red color. If the water changes color immediately or turns red or does not change color, or if the threads lose their color, the substance is not saffron. Another test of real Saffron is the Float Test that real saffron threads do not drown when put in water.
There is even a museum dedicated to saffron, and the Moroccan Saffron Farm makes Saffron Bitters – who knew?
PISTACHIO, HONEY & SAFFRON ICE CREAM
4 organic egg yolks
60 grams caster sugar
300 ml whole organic milk
60ml runny honey
300 ml crème fraiche
1/2 tsp saffron threads
150 grams of pistachio nuts
Soak 1/2 tsp. saffron threads in 1 tbsp of the 300ml milk
In a bowl beat the egg yolks, sugar and honey until thick and pale.
Slowly bring the milk to the boil in a saucepan and then pour over the egg yolk mixture.
Return to the saucepan and stir the mixture constantly over the heat until it forms a film on the back of a wooden spoon (Do not let it boil or it will separate)
Remove the pan from the heat, leave it to cool and then stir in the cream saffron and pistachio.
Place in an ice-cream maker to freeze.
Serve with a sprinkling of crushed pistachios.