An admiring account of an exotic spice with a long and varied history, by a food writer whose imagination keeps the story light and lively.
Since the blossom of the crocus plant is the source of saffron, Willard (A Soothing Broth, not reviewed) opens with the legend of the Greek youth Crocus, who was turned into a flower by a nymph grown weary of his attentions. Various ancient Mediterranean peoples—the Sumerians, Persians, Minoans, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans—used saffron not just to flavor foods but as a perfume, a dye, and in cosmetics and medicinal concoctions. (For the latter, Willard includes numerous recipes, complete with directions for use.) There are even recipes for an ancient bouillabaisse and an ancient brodetto to illustrate the differences in the French and Italian approaches to this saffron-flavored dish. Into her richly embroidered history of the spice—imagined conversations and thoughts have been freely added for color—Willard inserts her personal experiences with it: her initial discovery of its special comforts, the saffron crème brûlée pie she served her family after her mother died, childhood dining adventures in Pennsylvania Dutch country (a Schwenkfelder cake recipe is given here), and a trip to Spain to witness the annual saffron festival in the little town of Consuega (lots more recipes). Eventually she plants a field of saffron-yielding crocuses next to her Brooklyn home, a labor-intensive venture that yields enough of the precious stuff for one grand party and reveals to Willard the secret of saffron’s eternal appeal: “that so little is needed to turn life into a sumptuous feast.” For newcomers to saffron, she concludes with a brief primer on buying, using, and growing the spice, and she appends a generous assortment of saffron recipes that just didn’t find a proper home elsewhere in her narrative.
A charming little gift for an inquisitive cook.