My wonderful husband received a tagine as a gift. Since he planned to use this piece of Moroccan cookware to feed me marvelous dishes, I journeyed to our local middle eastern food market to purchase some typical Moroccan ingredients, such as preserved lemons, green olives, couscous, and saffron. The saffron was kept behind the counter and I had to ask for it. The check-out clerk asked, “How much?” I was stupefied. I didn’t know saffron came in sizes. I thought you bought a jar, you know, one-size-fits all like oregano.
“How much?” I repeated.
“A gram, half a gram, a third of a gram.” The clerk presented my choices.
I thought the metric system was only used for illicit drugs. Come to think of it, a third of a gram was a pretty small, drug-like measure, and the clerk did keep the saffron out of sight. $6 later the 1/3 gram was stowed safely in my purse. My saffron came in a small, shrink-wrapped, clear plastic case. The orange-red threads were a jumbled promise of the exotic feast to come.
Days later my husband treated me to Lamb Tagine with Apricots and Almonds. In it, he’d added a healthy pinch of the treasured saffron–I know, because I watched. As he dropped that healthy pinch of saffron threads into the pot (about $2 worth I guessed), I expected something wonderful to happen: an unusual aroma to waft up from the pot and surround me like a veil, a deep golden color to spread throughout the broth as though touched by Midas, my husband to sprout a luxurious mustache and woo me in a husky accent. What really happened was . . . nothing. The saffron was stirred into the broth, steam rose, my husband remained clean shaven.
An hour later we dined on Lamb Tagine over couscous. I tasted (humbly admitting that I have an excellent pallet) lamb, apricots, prunes, almonds, garlic, onion, cinnamon, honey, cilantro, pepper, and turmeric. All familiar flavors deliciously melded. In vain I searched for the one, elusive, unfamiliar flavor. The saffron was in there, somewhere. I had witnessed two bucks worth of the rare spice stirred into the pot. Still nothing. That’s when I decided that saffron is a hoax. Really, how could a pinch, one-twelfth of a gram of anything, stand up to even half a clove of garlic? It’s a great racket. Find a hard to acquire item, such as the stigma of a small wild flower that blooms once a year, make a fantastic claim about its seasoning prowess, and watch foodies beat a path to your door with wallets outstretched.
The problem is that I really, really want to believe in this spice. I want to believe that there is a mysterious taste that can transport me to exotic places. However, it appears that saffron is all mystique and little flavor.
Unless, I purchased a third of a gram of a crocus stigma knock-off. If so, there is still hope.