There is a new post on the blog (!) and that’s because there is a new kid in my cupboard. Oh, I know. I am so spoiled. I didn’t feel like blogging in a looong time and then some time ago Vetrina Toscana contacted me offering gold in exchange for a recipe. They shipped it across the Atlantic Ocean and, well, it maybe took more then expected to reach my apartment in the East Village. But now it’s here, enshrined in a safe box. This is the genuine truth but if anybody is still reading this dusty little webpage I feel like I should provide an explanation.
This gold is not the regular kind which you’re probably picturing, but something way more precious and unique: saffron filaments foraged from the hills around Florence.
I knew that this red gold thrives in the Mediterranean, but I must say I was surprised to discover that, ever since the Middle Ages, it found ideal grounds on the Florentines hills.
Traders would travel from all over Europe in order to acquire the precious spice, back then called «Zima di Firenze». Saffron was sought after not only as an ingredient in foods and medicines, but also for its indisputable ability in dyeing a deep golden hue everything the filaments came in contact with, a valuable feature for status-seeking nobles, eager to show their wealth. At that time, other kinds of saffron were available but the one farmed on florentine soil would stand out for its exceptional quality. The threads tend to remain stable and recognizable if cooked for brief amounts of time.
The threads are the stigmas of the crocus flower, which blooms at the beginning of fall, during two or three weeks between October and end of November, and must be picked by hand.
This particular saffron was sent to me by Giovanni and Antonietta, owners of the farm . Around twenty years ago they acquired a property in the Mugnone Valley, about five miles from Florence. The sun shines on their poggio from dawn to dusk, hence the name al sole. They started producing olive oil and growing fruits, later transformed in delicious jams and artisanal spirits. Then came a brave and brilliant thought: reintroducing crocus sativus in the area where it flourished for centuries. Perfecting the growing techniques was a labour of love, involving a lot of trial and error. Other farmers were inspired to join them in the quest and even came close to gain the prestigious DOP label. Unfortunately, they had to step back because of the high associated costs.
As I look at the long and elegant deeply red filaments I can only imagine how tedious it must have been for Giovanni and Antonietta to be in the fields from sunrise, for hours, while their fingers quickly removed the three saffron threads from each flower. Their backs must have ached and their fingers, stained orange, gnarled. After the harvest the threads are dried and then carefully packaged.
If I close my eyes I can dream of a perfect day: a trip to Florence where I could finally visit The Uffizi Gallery and Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. I would make sure to visit the Santa Maria Novella shop, prized purveyor of wonderfully scented wax tablets. I would definitely have a nice lunch, probably at the Mercato Centrale; and I would devote a little time to an invigorating coffee while indulging in some people-watching. Guessing from fashion blogs, it would look like people in Florence love to be stylish, and wearing sophisticated outfits is a must. After taking a long stroll chasing pretty things around the city, I would head to Poggio al Sole. The timing has to be perfect: I would reach the property right before dusk, when the light is warm. I’d speechless while gazing at the landscape: olives trees, the orchard, and the purple fields of saffron flowers in full bloom. I would then head to the farm house; and, while resting in the “ginestra” room, savor all the beautiful images of the day gone by.
While this is only daydreaming, I still have my saffron in the cupboard. Since I really wanted to taste it in the purest possible way, I opted for a whipped saffron butter, a delicacy I stumbled upon in many New York restaurants. Cream is slowly infused with the saffron threads, and then whipped with the best butter there is, until it turns into a soft, luscious yellow cloud where pistils float here and there. I decided to pair this yummy goodness with roasted sunchokes and beets I found at the Tompkins Square green market. Both are crunchy and creamy at the same time, and pair really well with the whipped saffron butter. As a garnish for those bites, I chose the last pea shoots of the season, their purple flowers a cheeky reminder of the crocus sativus.
For the whipped saffron butter
125g butter at room temperature
1g saffron filaments
Pour the cream in a small pot. Warm it gently, not over 80°C. Add the saffron threads, cover it and let it steep for 2 hours. Stir with a spoon from time to time, pressing the filaments in order to squeeze the essential oils in the cream. Start beating the butter by hand or in a standing mixer at low power. Add the infused cream little by little until it is fully incorporated. The butter will become creamy and fluffy. Store airtight at room temperature.
4-6 medium sized golden beets (red will be just fine)
8 large sunchokes
pea shoots or a few tender salad leaves
Preheat oven to 200°C. Both beets and sunchokes are often sandy on the outside, so rinse them carefully a few times, then drain and pat them dry. Halve the sunchokes lengthwise. Cut the beets in wedges. Place the vegetables on a rimmed baking sheet, season them with salt and roast them for about 25 minutes. The vegetables should be tender but still have a bite. Let them cool slightly. Spread some whipped saffron butter onto the beet wedges and the halved sunchokes. Garnish with pea shoots. Overindulge by serving with extra whipped saffron butter.
Product provided by Vetrina Toscana: best restaurants, shops and food events in Tuscany