SAFFRON PANNA COTTA
by Gina Depalma
I was perusing the aisles of a gourmet store with a close friend a few weeks ago when we happened upon a display of saffron. A few of the tiny strands were contained in a tiny glass vial, and the price tag revealed that the 1-gram size was on sale for the bargain price of $13.99. My friend stared for a moment, snorted, and moved on. I sighed. There was too much to explain to her about the wonders of saffron and the window had, rather sadly, been slammed shut by what seemed like a ridiculous price tag.
The price of saffron becomes much less shocking when armed with a bit more knowledge about this exotic spice, and our website journey this month to San Gimignano in the heart of Tuscany makes it all the more timely to take a quick lesson in Saffron 101. San Gimignano has a proud history linked to saffron, which began in the Middle Ages and continues to this very day. But first, we need to learn more about the exotic and wonderful product.
Saffron, or Zefferano in Italian, is perhaps the most precious and expensive spice produced in the world. Saffron threads are actually filaments, specifically the dried stigmas of a particular flower, the Crocus Sativus Linneaus. These stigmas are the female sex organ of the flower, and each flower contains only three of them. The stigmas must be carefully harvested by hand only, and to further complicate matters, harvesting can only take place in the morning, before the heat of the sun causes the flowers to wither. Taking into account that it takes 75,000 flowers to make one pound of saffron threads, the price starts to make a bit more sense. The good news is that pure, true saffron is used in only the tiniest of amounts. A 1/4-ounce or 1 gram can actually go a long way in your kitchen.
The stigmas of the magical Crocus Sativus Linneaus contain a number of chemical compounds that give saffron its uniquely powerful properties. Crocin is the primary carotenoid-type pigment responsible for the bright orange-yellow color of saffron. Also present are specific essential oils, which contribute the slightly bitter flavor and heady aroma. As un-exciting as the science of saffron may be, it is important to understand that the quality and even the authenticity of saffron are determined by these very factors. In the end, it is the intensity of saffron and the context in which it is sold which should serve as a guide; there are many ways for the unscrupulous to con the consumer. In some cases, the flavorless male sex organ of the flower is harvested rather than the female.
Another ruse is to dye grass threads to mimic the outward appearance of saffron threads. Unfortunately, since many people are unfamiliar with the true flavor of saffron, they do not realize that they have purchased a fake or inferior product. Saffron holds the title of being the most expensive spice in the world, so if it seems like the price too good to be true, it probably is. Furthermore, no self-respecting merchant would sell saffron in any other form than the whole threads. Anything labeled “saffron powder” or ground saffron should be avoided.
Saffron is cultivated along a large swath of geography, stretching from the Western Mediterranean, across the Middle East to India. Many of the saffron-producing countries, however, do not export their harvest, though that situation is ever changing. The largest producers of saffron exported to the West are Spain and Iran. Iran has actually exceeded Spain in terms of world saffron production, which is a mind-boggling 300 tons per year total, but the persistent and serious geo-political situation in that part of the world prevent it from being exported successfully. Spanish saffron is the most accessible saffron and is of extremely high quality. As such, it is the most common to American consumers as well food professionals.
Which brings us to the saffron of San Gimignano. While it may be harder to find here in America than Spanish saffron, it still has a captivating history and exciting future to be explored. The cultivation and harvesting of saffron outside the ancient city walls of San Gimignano dates back to the 13th Century. As early as 1200 A.D. there is documentation of saffron exported from San Gimignano to Eastern and African countries, one of the few products to flow out of Italy at that time rather than the reverse. The trade of saffron was so successful for several prominent families of San Gimignano, it helped to finance the construction of their famous towers, the ruins of which remain to this day as emblems of this proud hilltop city. Saffron was used not only in cooking, but also as a pigment to color paints for artists and as a dye for cloth merchants. It was also believed to have powerful medicinal properties.
The history of the saffron of San Gimignano is tied to the history of the city itself. During the height of the city’s power, saffron was actually used as currency, reward, and even ransom. San Gimignano’s decline came in the 14th century, when it was eventually brought under the rule of the Duchy of Florence. The decline of the saffron trade came a bit later, around 1600. Thanks to the interest in Italian cuisine and culture, modern gastronomy has promoted its recent resurgence in production. Today, Zafferano di San Gimignano is used throughout Italy and is even slowly being exported in small quantities to other countries. In 2003, the consortium of growers applied to the European Union for DOP status, which was granted in February of 2005. It is hoped that the continuing dedication of the producers will demonstrate the superiority of their harvest and allow the world export market to accept them at levels to enable competition with the major producers from other countries.
Saffron is used in many classic Italian dishes, the most well- known being Risotto all Milanese (ironically, a dish from the glittering city of Milan in Lombardia). Locally, it can be found in many Tuscan dishes, flavoring pasta dough, soups, sauces for meats and fish, even in gelato. To extract flavor from the threads, they are soaked in water or milk, and the intensely flavored liquid is then added to the dish. If the dish includes a liquid, such as the stock for risotto, or, in the case of the recipe below, milk or cream, the saffron can simply be infused into the recipe’s measurement.
I love the penetrating flavor and sunny color saffron bestows upon a dish, and when I was designing the opening menu for Babbo, something in my head kept whispering, “Saffron Panna Cotta.” I wasn’t sure if it would work, but it appeared on my first menu and has been a staple ever since. Saffron is a tricky sell sometimes. People who are not used to the flavor may be wary, but I find that it marries well with the creamy texture of the dessert, as well as with the fresh fruit I often pair it with. My recipe for the very same Saffron Panna Cotta we serve at Babbo every day appears in The Babbo Cookbook. This month, celebrate the history of San Gimignano with it.
In a medium saucepan, combine the cream, sugar, lemon or orange zest and saffron threads. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring gently, then remove from the heat. Let the mixture rest for ten minutes to develop the flavor and color.
Stir the powdered gelatin into the cream mixture until it dissolves. Strain the mixture through a fine-meshed sieve, then stir in the milk.
Pour the mixture into chilled dessert cups or wine glasses. If desired, the panna cotta may be unmolded by running the tip of a knife around the edge of the cup, dipping the cup quickly into hot water, and gently shaking the custard onto a plate. Serve with fresh fruit.