Gold, Frankincense & Saffron

Yesterday I received a Christmas package from my sister-in-law containing gifts for the girls and spices for me. A few weeks ago she told me about a new spice market near her house in South Pasadena and asked if I wanted anything. I had just placed a big order from but had forgotten a couple items. As I planned to make pfferneuse and gingerbread from an old German recipe, I told her I would deeply appreciate allspice and “real” cinnamon. **I most recently learned – I think from Alton Brown – that most cinnamon sold in stores is not really cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) but cassia (Cinnamomum aromaticu) – a close relative.

This made me start thinking about spices much I didn’t know then, how much I know now, and how much I still have to learn. Case in point: About ten years ago I visited Bali in Indonesia and very near The Spice Islands (aka Maluku Islands) – so named for the abundance of spices grown there. Unfortunately, at that time I was not as enamored of cooking as I am now and missed my chance to stock up. I did, however, buy whole nutmeg, anise, cloves and a bunch of other goodies for my Aunt Carol who is a cooker extraordinaire.

Years later I found myself in the middle-east, Dubai to be exact, and made a point of visiting a couple of the souks (Arabic for market). Souks, I soon learned, are both market places and festival places. The range of goods sold in each and the opportunities for people watching were mind-boggling! At the gold souk, I gawked at the millions and millions of dollars of gorgeous gold jewelry (sold by the gram regardless of the workmanship involved) on display in each storefront and finally settled on an intricate 22k filigree ring for $15(US) a gram ($466 an ounce – a good deal at the time).

Photo by Susan Wenzel

Then…I ventured into the spice souk. Surrounded by the kaleidoscope of colors and panorama of smells emitting from row after row of huge burlap bags and bins of every kind of spice, herb and nut imaginable – I was quickly approaching sensory overload. After gathering myself, I was determined to not make the Bali mistake. Now older and wiser, I purchased all kinds of amazing items including premium grade frankincense (not a spice but a highly prized tree resin used in perfumes and incense) and then honed in on my intended target – saffron. Saffron, stamen from the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), is one of the most expensive, highly prized items in the food world. (I most recently saw 1 gram for sale in a specialty market for $9). This fragrant and richly colored spice is loved just as much for the exotic aroma and taste it imparts as it is for the golden hue it gives to rice, chicken or even custard. After passing on bins of yellowish-orange saffron in one crowded little store, I succeeded in persuading the merchant I meant business. He finally pulled a small tin from a shelf behind the counter. This was the stuff I was looking for – the good stuff. After parting with about $12, I walked away with nearly a full ounce of rich smelling, deeply red colored tiny curls of saffron.

My penchant for purchasing spices both at home and abroad has earned me the nickname of “Spice Girl.” Although I’ll admit I’ve moved far beyond seasoning my food with only salt and pre-ground pepper, there are so many more spices to learn and flavors to explore!

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