Why One California Couple Started Growing Organic Saffron—Plus, Their Favorite Recipes That Let the Famed Spice Shine
It's the most expensive spice in the world, but how did organic saffron came to flourish on a California farm? Learn the backstory, then make these five fragrant recipes.
A culinary treasure for millennia, saffron is worth nearly its weight in gold. It has also been a thrilling challenge for a couple looking to turn over a new leaf. They planted their first crop in Kelseyville, California, three years ago, and today they're the largest organic commercial growers of the spice in the country. Welcome to Peace and Plenty Farm.
Melinda Price first daydreamed of being an organic farmer 30 years ago in a very incongruous setting: while posing in the salons of Paris couturier Hubert de Givenchy, where she worked as a model. From there, she followed a circuitous path, becoming a public-school teacher, a caterer, a single mother, and a tech worker in San Francisco. Then in 2016, Price and her now-husband, Simon Avery, a former ornithologist, started to cast about for a high-value specialty crop—like wasabi, mushrooms, or hops—that would allow them to realize her longtime dream, and make a living. "It takes a lot of carrots to pay the mortgage," she jokes. One day, a voice spoke to them through the ether, and what it said, of all things, was "Saffron."
The pair lived in Northern California, and "Simon was in the car listening to NPR," recalls Price. A newscaster was reporting from the University of Vermont about a plan to introduce saffron as a cash crop for New England's struggling small farmers. Or reintroduce it, really, since the source of "red gold," the autumn-blooming Crocus sativus plant, was brought to America in the 18th century by Amish and Mennonite immigrants from western Europe. (Today, Iran is the spice's top global producer, and saffron is integral to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine; a few strands lend its distinct earthy flavor and hue to dishes like paella, risotto alla Milanese, tagine, and tahdig.) Avery told Price what he'd heard, and soon after she booked a plane ticket to attend a weekend workshop in Vermont. While there, she wound up buying 7,000 bulb-like corms for fall delivery. "We had to commit," she says. "Saffron ticked all the boxes."
What the pair didn't have was a farm. An intense real-estate search a few hours north of San Francisco led them to seven acres in Lake County, where they spent the summer digging beds together, Avery full-time and Price on nights and weekends, while still doing her day job. Saffron crocuses yield a limited crop the first season, and that October they produced 25 grams of kitchen-ready threads, enough to fill a tea tin. It wasn't much, but luckily saffron is measured by the pinch, not the pound. Price put her first harvest to homespun use, enjoying it in rustic everyday dishes—like scalloped potatoes, chicken soup, and shortbread—that inspired our recipes here.
The couple now farm some 500,000 corms, which produce up to two kilograms, or about 4.4 pounds, of saffron per year. With such lucrative potential yields (one gram of their organic saffron costs $54), why don't more farmers grow it? "The labor!" says Price. "It is so time-consuming." Every flower is picked by hand before sunrise by the couple and a seasonal crew of interns and local volunteers, and every rust-colored stigma has to be plucked out that same day, she explains. Over the month-long harvest, each corm rapidly pushes up as many as 18 flowers. "You can spend the morning clearing a field, look back, and it's purple again!" she says. Next, the stigmas are cured (dried), which primes them to develop their signature flavor over the following eight months—just in time to get ready for the next round of planting, and another new beginning.
Art Direction by James Maikowski; Food Styling by Frances Boswell; Prop Styling by Ayesha Patel.
When Price and Avery established their farm in 2017, there were only a handful of other saffron growers in the entire country.
Putting in the Work
The vivid crimson spice saffron is produced by harvesting the delicate stigmas of the Crocus sativus flower by hand (which explains its hefty price tag). Here, Price pinches off a flower at its base.
Saffron Chicken Noodle Soup
Golden Potato Gratin
The caramelized onions in this gooey potato gratin draw out the sweet warmth of the saffron.
Part of the Process
Crocus flowers just after picking.
A Team Affair
Neighbors show up every fall to help separate the orangey-red stigmas from the flowers.
Even with help in the fields, by mid-November, Price and Avery are exhausted from the harvest.
These vibrant strands of saffron will soon be laid out to cure.
Saffron Shortbread and Saffron Latte
The ultimate satisfying afternoon pick-me-up for the farmers during harvest season is this buttery shortbread paired with a saffron-infused latte.
Pure and Simple
Price loves to steep saffron in water for a soothing tea.
To extract the flavor, she pulverizes a few threads in warm water and lets them bloom for a couple of minutes. You can also soak threads in cold water overnight in the refrigerator. To find Peace and Plenty saffron and learn how to grow a pot of saffron at home, visit peaceplentyfarm.com.
The spice brings an unexpected floral essence to pears poached in dry white wine, vanilla, orange, cinnamon, and a pinch of saffron. They are served with a lightly sweetened saffron whipped cream. The dessert enlists the fruit because it's also grown on Peace and Plenty Farm and ripens at the same time as the saffron harvest, as do the area's walnut crops.