It’s saffron harvest season in Niagara! Robert and Melissa Achal of NOEB Lavender on Niagara Stone Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake are in full saffron harvest. Over 400 pots, each with one crocus bulb bloom intermittedly and Robert has to hand harvest each one.
The harvest runs from mid November to mid December, these little pots burst with beautiful blossoms. It’s Robert Achal’s job to pick each flower, open it up and remove the 4 stamens waiting inside each one of them.
Robert is originally from Figi and everything he does from growing his exotic plants and making them into lines of cosmetics are traditions he learned from his home country and from his grandmother who is an herbalist in Figi.
The worlds largest saffron production comes from Iran. It’s where Robert got his crocus bulbs. Every second year the bulbs are divided and there are waiting lists of companies waiting for the division of the bulbs so they can begin their own saffron production. Robert put his name on that list and in October, they arrived. The new bulbs usually take a year to flower but amazingly, they began to bloom in November. “They must like their new home”, says Robert.
The saffron harvest runs approximately 4 weeks. It starts when the flowers begin to bloom and ends when they no longer bloom. Each bulb can give off 3 to 4 flowers during harvest. Robert himself hand harvests his crop every day. He refers to the crocuses as a fall crocus. It’s is not the kind you grow in your garden, if you use the wrong kind of crocus stamen it could be very poisonous.
To harvest saffron, the entire flower is pinched off the stem of the plant, then each flower is opened and the stems removed very carefully. If a saffron thread is broken upon removal, it is useless, so each one is handled very delicately. A saffron stamen goes from red at the bottom to orange at the top and the redder the saffron, the higher the quality.
To cook with saffron you must soak real saffron in water before you use it then pulverize it with a mortar and pestal. Then you’re ready to add it to dishes for amazing colour and flavour. It’s great in a saffron curry sauce, you can make a saffron cake, it goes well with lamb and seafood pastas and of course the quintessential saffron dish is Bouillabaisse.
Robert is happy to be growing the real thing. For a few years now he’s been growing what is known as a “poor man’s saffron” or Egyptian saffron. This is really a Calendula flower and not a crocus. It doesn’t bleed like real saffron so it doesn’t colour a dish as well. The flower petals are dried and cured and as it does this, the petals shrivel into threads that look like saffron. It’s a great substitute, but it’s not the real thing.
Crocuses are beautiful, delicate little flowers and as I gaze at them in Robert’s greenhouse, appreciating their beauty, I wonder who thought that removing the little stamens, drying them and pulverizing them would make a great ingredient in seafood dishes. I don’t know who had such an amazing mind, but I’m sure glad they did.
NOEB Lavender, 758 Niagara Stone Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake