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The Important Truth About Saffron

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What is bad about saffron?
Intrinsically nothing. However, as saffron has reigned as queen of the expensive flavors and spices since Medieval times, unscrupulous dealers throughout the centuries have used safflower and other imposters as the real deal. Unfortunately, despite laws to keep our food safe, sleight-of-hand is even happening right here in the US. 

Here’s what’s going on:
All saffron sold commercially is now grown in Iran and Afghanistan. Whoa! What about Spain? Times have changed in sleepy La Mancha, where no one tilts with windmills and the region no longer closes down in October for the crocus harvest. Families no longer sit around long tables tweezers-in-hand, plucking the three stigmas from each flower and dropping the purple petals in baskets. Trays of saffron threads no longer rest about the family stove, drying just enough to be packaged then shipped to those who value this coveted flavor in their foods.

Sadly, those days are gone, but Spain still plays a pivotal role in the dispersal of saffron. Spain is where saffron is doctored and passed off as a pure, natural flavor.

For many years saffron has been an important Persian export, perhaps not as valuable as petroleum, but for the culinary world, a necessary delicacy. Sanctions and a changing climate have been very difficult for saffron for quite some time and prices have continued to edge upwards. However, sanctions have been lifted and Iran is again offering premium quality saffron.

Saffron prices have skyrocketed, selling for $1600 a pound or more. Of course, most of us buy a few grams or half an ounce at a time, enough for several meals. At about $4.00 a gram, saffron is actually an affordable  luxury.

Because Spain has been known for centuries as the only place to buy saffron, it is shipped from Iran to Spain for repackaging, then exported as Spanish saffron.

While this is not true of all saffron emerging from Spain, a significant portion is processed to remove the volatile oils and colorants, then sold to Japan as a coveted dye. The threads are left with little flavor and their color is largely gone. Red dyes banned in much of Europe and in the United States are applied to the threads, then dried, packaged in decorative Spanish tins, and sent to big box stores, supermarkets and other destinations, including specialty stores, where they are sold. There is no way to check the saffron in the tins until after it is purchased. The price may be significantly lower, but what you’re purchasing is not what you had in mind.

US customs is aware of what is going on, but allows it through unchallenged. As it can cost up to $40,000 for a full lab report, it’s easier to look the other way rather than inspect each shipment that arrives in our ports.

If you have bought saffron recently, check it carefully. Smell the threads. The odor should be clean and pungent. Tainted saffron that I smelled had only a faint saffron aroma. The threads themselves were dull and mottled, not vibrant with a red and yellow hue.

If you love saffron, don’t take the risk of being duped. Purchase quality saffron, then store it in a cool, dark cupboard, where it will last for years.

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Shrimp and White Bean Salad with Citrus-Mint Dressing

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While a chilly winter day complete with snow flurries is thrilling in November or December, by March who needs it, especially a late season blizzard or ice storm! And it isn’t just the weather. Market produce looks tired (except for the kale and cabbage), and finding good lettuce can be a fantasy . While I now live near America’s “salad bowl,” I was born in Cleveland, so I know how winter can drag on and on.

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Guinness Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lime-Vanilla Frosting

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 Adapted from David Lebovitz’ Ready for Dessert

In honor of Irish heritage (mine and a lot of other Americans who also have Irish ancestors), I wanted to make something special for those who celebrate St. Paddy’s Day. Unfortunately, the Irish are not known for their desserts. However, Guinness Stout is in every Irish pub and is the beverage of choice on March 17th.

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Shrimp with Remoulade Sauce

https://vanillaqueen.com/new-orleans-style-beignets/

When it comes to good food, Southern Louisiana does not disappoint! Along with a bountiful harvest of seafood and the combination of traditional Southern, Creole and Cajun cooking, they’ve enriched our national cuisine with Jambalaya, Etouffee, Gumbo, Po’Boy’s — and that’s just a few of their long list of specialties.

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Smoked Rainbow Trout and Endive Salad

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Just a few weeks ago I’m sure I came across a recipe for Smoked Trout and Endive Salad. It was posted by someone who said she had discovered the recipe in Alice Waters’ American Vegetable Cookbook. It sounded like a great base for a full meal salad. Later, when I attempted to check on the dressing ingredients, I couldn’t find the recipe anywhere, including Alice’s cookbook, which leads me to wonder if I dreamed it.

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Chicken Tetrazzini

Food history is always fascinating. It’s like an archeology dig that you can then eat. My mother made Chicken Tetrazzini for dinner when I was growing up and it was a favorite of mine because it was the right kind of cozy on a cold, wet winter night. It’s an ideal recipe to use up leftover roasted or rotisserie chicken (or turkey), which was precisely why I just made it again for the first time in ages. It is also an incredibly wet, dreary February so it served as a useful way to warm my body and spirit as well as warming my kitchen and office thanks to the oven.

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Why is vanilla so expensive?

Have you noticed that the cost of cookies, cakes and ice creams have been creeping up? Most desserts use vanilla, and vanilla prices have skyrocketed since 2014. Could that be it? Absolutely! And why is vanilla so expensive now? The answer may surprise you. Read on.

As vanilla prices rise, so do baked goods. Picture credit: http://experimentalgastronomy.wordpress.com

As vanilla prices rise, so do baked goods.  Or do they? Picture credit: The Experimental Gastronomy

Like everything else, the cost of vanilla is affected by supply and demand, and today the vanilla supply is down – WAY DOWN. The reasons will surprise you!

Tropical farmers who grow coffee, cacao, vanilla, sugar and a few other crops, constantly face fluctuating prices for their crops due to supply and demand. And because vanilla is by far the smallest of the tropical luxury crops, the vanilla industry faces dramatic fluctuations.

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Is Fair Trade vanilla really fair?

Did you know there is a dark side to fair trade vanilla?

According to the World Fair Trade Organization, the definition of Fair Trade is as follows:

“Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seek greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South. Fair Trade Organizations, backed by  consumers, are engaged actively  in supporting producers,  awareness  raising  and  in  campaigning  for  changes  in  the  rules  and  practice  of conventional international trade.”

What’s not to like about this? Fairness for farmers, which helps them and their families to thrive as well as to continue to produce the foods, spices and other ingredients that we love and use regularly.

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A Tribute to Diana Kennedy

diana-alone-dsc_4855_fotorDiana Kennedy, 2016

 If you’re interested in and enjoy Mexican cuisine, you’ll want to remember this name – Diana Kennedy, is arguably the world’s authority on Mexico’s incredibly diverse and unique foods, flavors, dishes and their preparation. She has written nine books on the subject. Her first book, The Cuisines of Mexico, came out in 1972, and is credited with opening American eyes to the extraordinary regional flavors of Mexico.

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Persimmon Cookies with Lemon-Vanilla Glaze

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Whenever I’ve been fortunate enough to score persimmons, I’ve always made Persimmon Puddings (the word for dessert in the UK but, in the US, it’s actually cake). My mother always made it for Thanksgiving and served it with a lemon sauce instead of a hard sauce. I discovered it was worth “gilding the lily” by serving whipped cream on the side.

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Molten Chocolate Cakes

Current Chocolate Molten Lava Cake

 

Guittard-chocolateIMG_0281-300x225These cakes are my latest downfall.  I discovered that you don’t have to use them right away to enjoy the smooth

exterior and melted center of these chocolaty mini-cakes. Make the recipe, bake it off and use however many of the little cakes you want.  Wrap the rest and refrigerate or freeze.  When you’re ready for a rich chocolate hit, pop the room-temperature cakelet into the microwave for about 10 seconds.  The center will be soft and oozy and ready to give you the rush you’ve been hoping for. These  cakelets are really rich. If you want three-bite desserts, make eight or ten instead of six.

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Vanilla Festival Santa Cruz, 2016

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The first annual Santa Cruz Vanilla Festival came together as precisely the magical event Chef David Jackman and I imagined when David proposed the idea back in September. We weren’t quite sure how many guests we could accommodate in his cozy restaurant downtown on Pacific Avenue. While there are tables in a lovely covered patio in front of the restaurant, December can be chilly or rainy. I suggested that we take advantage of the long wooden tables to create community seating so that guests could meet one another while enjoying the three course meal. We were ready to expand to the patio if necessary, but felt 50 would be an ideal number. As it turned out, every seat inside was filled, and the restaurant was closed inside for our party.

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Gougeres

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Gougeres are a French comfort food. Not a mac ‘n cheese kind of comfort food, but the kind that’s served fresh from the oven with a glass of wine or a cocktail. Or maybe stuffed with warm brie or some crab or smoked salmon and creme fraiche. The fun part is deciding how you want your gougeres (goo jeres)– small or medium in size, what kinds of cheese to add to the dough, or whether to stuff them with something substantial that works perfectly with a drink or as part of a small plates party.

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Key Lime – Vanilla Pie

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My recent trip to Costa Rica was fortuitous in several respects, not the least of which was that one of my favorite tropical fruits was in season and I indulged myself at every opportunity. There are three varieties of passion fruit; the variety I had in Costa Rica is the same as lilikoi in Hawaii. It is a tart fruit but with the lovely underlying flavor of passion fruit. Called Maracuya in Latin America, it is made into a refreshing beverage served icy cold as well as a rich, creamy pie. It occurred to me as I ate a piece, that the recipe was either similar to, or the same as, the one I use for Key Lime pie.

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Turkey Divan

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Thanksgiving’s over and you’ve eaten all you can stand of turkey “sundaes” and turkey sandwiches. I know it’s hard to have enough of all the sides and turkey with gravy, but just in case you’ve had one too many days of leftovers or, if you love turkey and want another easy-to-assemble, delicious turkey option, this recipe is for you!

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