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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The "I Could Have Been A Saffron Millionaire!" Story

Mosemann Spanish saffron on sale at the grocery store.
It was an ordinary day.  Going through the check-out line at our local grocery store and there at the end of the line, as Carol and I entered, was a yellow piece of cardboard with packets of Pure Spanish Saffron attached to it.  She said to me, "Remember when I made chicken potpie and added some saffron to it for flavoring?  You told me I ruined it!"  For those who have never tried it or used it in cooking, saffron has a very subtle flavor and aroma and gives a golden hue to that which it is added.  For me, living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home of the Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonites, saffron is a centuries-old tradition.  It's use is well-known for chicken potpies, egg-noodle chicken soup, bread stuffing and even salted chicken hearts.  
The crocus flower that produces saffron.
Saffron is actually the dried red stigma (the part of the flower's pistil where pollen germinates) of the autumn-flowering Crocus sativus and is still grown in Lancaster County by Justin Hulshizer who is neither Pennsylvania Dutch or a farmer.  He grows it mainly for his family, but when the weather yields a bumper crop, neighbors and other Lancasterians share in the crop.  Prior to the Revolutionary War, saffron traded on the Philadelphia commodity exchange at a price equal to gold. When I worked as a cashier for my local Acme Supermarket, I remember the packets of saffron that we kept under the cash register due to its cost.  
Showing the red stigmas on the edge of the plate.
Always hated the odor when a bag would break open.  The price today as we entered the check-out line was $2.19 for 3 grams!!  You better believe you would use this spice sparingly if you use it. Justin can still remember when his grandmother moved from her family home to a nursing home and insisted that he take her saffron corms and start a crop of his own.  The corm resembles a tulip bulb that reproduces by spawning smaller, daughter corms that can be detached and replanted.  The corms are unearthed and divided in July and by mid-October send up shoots that bloom purple-lilac flowers.  Each flower yields three stigmas or threads which must be harvested in the early morning before the sun wilts the blooms.  The saffron threads are then dried in a convection toaster for two minutes which activates the oils and enhances the aroma.  
Mosemann saffron sold on market.
Justin has seven beds of flowers which yields 10 to 15 grams of saffron each year.  Yes, you read that right!!  10 to 15 grams per season which is about 5 of the bags that were on the board at the grocery store.  Labor intensive?  You've got to be kidding! What a pain it must be to grow saffron.  How can anyone make a living if they are a saffron farmer?  Perhaps that's why Justin is one of the few people in Pennsylvania that still grow the stuff.  I was recently at Lancaster's Central Market and saw containers of saffron packaged by Mosemann from New Holland, PA and found out that Mosemann sells saffron procured from a broker and not raised in New Holland.  If I had known what I now know, I would have scooped up all that stuff that spilled from those bags in the Acme and put it in a safe deposit box.  I might have become a Saffron millionaire by now! It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.   

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