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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spring is in the Air

It's the third week of February, a month traditionally linked in my mind as having the most tempestuous of weathers, having lived up until now in the New York tri-state area.

However, it's the first month of spring here in the Loire Valley. While I read of snowstorms with near-record accumulations back in the States, I've turned down my central heating--although I did refill the oil tank; I'm not a complete idiot--and have begun weeding and sowing seed for early crops such as arugula (rocket), spinach and leeks. Even tomato seeds are to be potted up this week as my sunny, glassed-in verandah should prove a terrific greenhouse for tender seedlings. Leeks and garlic, planted last September, sit in solitary splendor in my otherwise empty raised beds. I went admittedly a little crazy with the seed packets. It's so easy to do and I was so tickled to find bio or organic seeds even in the supermarkets and hardware stores. I've seeds for four different types of tomato plants as well as bell pepper, pattypan squash, carrots, potatoes, romaine, arugula, spinach, scallions, white onion, leeks, radishes and, of course, haricots vert! If the seeds don't do well, I can fall back on seedlings sold at the village outdoor markets.

As I've managed to secure a paid gig of two hours of landscaping work in someone's garden every other week, I'm even more delighted at the early advent of spring. It also means I have to start polishing my nails again. Sound silly? Not at all. It's a great way to hide the dirt....

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Saffron Season


'Tis the season when fêtes abound in France--February is the month for winter fêtes. So I happily traipsed off to nearby Preuilly-sur-Claise for their annual safran(saffron) festival, traditionally the 3rd Saturday of every February. (Photo from www.indianetzone.com/1/saffron_flower.htm.)


Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, I'm told, because it's not only labor intensive to produce but it requires nearly 5,000 purple crocus blooms to produce a mere ounce, and an acre of flowers to produce a single pound. For those of you unfamiliar with it, each bloom contains only 3 red stigmas that must be handpicked from among the yellow ones which have no flavor. (This photo, illustrating a jar identical to the one I purchased except for the label, comes from http://whatscookingamerica.net/saffron.htm)

It's actually economical to use, I'm told. Its honey-like yet bitter taste can overwhelm a dish if too much is used. A tiny pinch is typically all that's needed for a dish feeding four to six people. Saffron is added arguably as much or more for its color punch than its taste. I confess that my cooking expertise has never extended to using saffron for budgetary reasons, never having been exposed to it outside the occasional restaurant offering, so I went to the festival determined to purchase a modest amount, both to support the local producers and give me the excuse to experiment.

Like all French fêtes, this one was packed with locals, all standing around socializing, sipping wine and saffron-flavored drinks, and nibbling on baked goods hued in the unmistakeable, warm, yellow saffron color. Tilly, insistent on being carried because of the intimidating mass of legs around her, was, as always, immensely popular, the French all calling her mignon (cute). Even the men can't resist her. She's practically my trademark now, a way for the locals to recognize me when I attend the various local functions, not to mention being a great conversation starter so I can practice my beginner-level French.

With all the attention focused on Tilly, it was easy to dart in to the tables and make my purchases: a small jar of saffron threads and a pretty 4-centiliter bottle of yellow sirop au safran, a saffron-infused sugar syrup, perfect they claim for those de rigueur kir aperitifs. I made my purchase from Marion Babinot, a producer with the regional designation, Le Signé Poitou-Charentes, meaning it adheres to three stringent quality requirements: it must be organically grown; it must contain no yellow stigmas; and it must be sold hermetically sealed in glass so as not to corrupt the contents. Check, check and check!

It appears saffron risotto might just be on the menu for my birthday dinner next month when I return from Paris!