Botanists may best know Washington’s sunny Sequim-Dungeness Valley on the Olympic Peninsula for its lavender. But in the foothills above Sequim, Phocas Farms is successfully growing a crop usually reserved for Asiatic or Mediterranean climates – saffron. On an ounce-by-ounce basis, this is the world’s most expensive spice.
“It takes about 80,000 crocus blooms to yield one pound of saffron…”
Saffron comes from a crocus, a purple flower that was originally cultivated in Greece. “It takes about 80,000 crocus blooms to yield one pound of saffron,” says Monica Bhide, author of Modern Spice (Simon & Schuster, 2009). “That is a lot of flowers!”
Lisa Nakamura, chef and owner of Allium on Orcas Island, Washington, first heard of Phocas Farms’ saffron while doing a 100-Mile Dinner at another area restaurant (a farm-to-fork dining concept where ingredients are sourced within a 100-mile radius). She believes it was local bivalve guru, Jon Rowley, who brought these long, eyelash-like red threads to her attention.
Nakamura finds this saffron to be milder in flavor than the Spanish saffron one usually finds. “The threads of the Sequim saffron are pristine, thicker and in excellent condition when they arrive,” she says. “It is very apparent that (farmer) Jim Robinson takes care of his flowers.”
Robinson is farming land that has been in his family for three generations; it is where he was born. Although he’s primarily known at area farmers markets for his succulents, he started the laborious process of growing saffron in the mid 1980s and brought his product to market in 2005. Nakamura recalls how one year Jim boasted a “bumper crop.”
“I think this dedication, along with the delicate flavor, is what speaks to me,” says Nakamura. “It is a desire to preserve a tradition, to do something for which there really is not a mechanical substitute to make the process easier.”
Phocas Farms’ saffron is the perfect match for the chowder Nakamura serves at Allium, which is not based on a heavier flour roux. “For me, the roux can mask the flavor of the clam, so I don’t use one,” she says. Nakamura prefers to showcase the freshness and sweetness of the clams she gets locally from nearby Lopez Island.
Bhide warns new saffron users to apply a light hand in recipes – a little goes a long way. “I like to soak a few strands in warm milk and then use the liquid and the strands in the recipe,” she shares. You can also soak it in warm water. “In Iran, they sometimes soak the saffron in rose water before using,” adds Bhide.
In the U.S., you can find saffron at Indian stores, major supermarkets and online. Or in Seattle – directly from Jim Robinson of Phocas Farms or at Ballard Farmers Market.
343 Robinson Road
Port Angeles, WA