I feel like cooking one of those whole-day-to-make affairs where you get through a few albums on the stereo and do everything from scratch with all the chopping and peeling and frying and simmering so that you just get embroiled in it all and the house smells of nothing else. I am thinking a nice tangy borscht with beets, cabbage, carrots and pork, or else a bouillabaisse; white wine, dill; garlic, herbs, olive oil, butter; sour cream, and a generous teaspoon of saffron.
Since the beginning of 2021 we have sworn to each other not to eat in a single eatery until the virus is under control, and have been making food at home, leaving things to eat for each other during the working week. The excellent Kamakura vegetable market is right next to Duncan’s school, and he often returns with intriguing vegetables I have never seen before; black hairy carrots, dark purple radishes, bitter greens with crenellated surfaces. They often throw in some free radicchio or rucola as well; wasabi or mustard leaves; mountain potatoes.
Although I often need simple, even bland food – mashed potatoes, boiled vegetables served with some grilled protein – very traditional English – like most people I also love the whole gamut of herbs and spices. So much more than mere flavour enhancers and condiments, needless to say, spices are also vital botanicals with proven health benefits and rich histories that boost energy, the psyche, and the immune system at this stressful and depleting time we are living in (see also this piece I wrote on the power of essential oils). They are necessary. The new recently opened takeout Turkish kebab place, Zaza’s, in Ofuna, is drawing long lines of local people who have probably never eaten this food before and can’t get enough of the cinnamon, sumac, cumin and thyme-infused meat wafting through the air of the big market there; so filling and galvanising in the cold weather : you feel it heating you up from the inside, suffusing an aromatic warmth through your blood vessels. Delicious natural complements. Indispensable in winter. The sea faring trading ancients thought of spices not just as perfumes and culinary and economic necessities but also as medicines; the basis for the treatments given by Phoenician or Ayurvedic physicians: observably tried and tested remedies; as anti-oxidants to free radicals, as body vitalizers. Both paprika and cayenne pepper are well-known anti-inflammatories for inflamed joints; treating the swollen tissue from within – so I use them regularly in my food. Those with heart problems are sometimes advised to carry the latter with them at all times, as the chemical capsaicin in cayenne pepper is reputed to be able to sometimes nip an incipient cardiac arrest in the bud. Spices flood our circulation and stimulate our brains; there is a much lower incidence of Alzheimer’s in India precisely because of the great prevalence of turmeric in the cuisine – a hyper-health food I am not very keen on the taste of unless blended into a curry or a cardamomed masala chai, but which I do always keep a bag of as a cold antidote – I find it helps keep illness at bay.
Cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and star anise (a powerful virus destroyer) I use copiously in my rooibos teas. D is the pfeffermeister, a pepper lover, sprinkling cracked pink, white and black pepper onto salads; I am the one more naturally geared towards the perfumed voluptuousness of saffron, saved usually only for particular occasions like today (Valentine’s). I have a real pull towards saffron, particularly with seafood : intrinsically aphrodisiac and sense-altering and without parallel in the spice rack; sublimating all the food around it with its stark yellow scent that smells like liquorice in concentration but like the warm breath of suppressed carnality in the desired concentrations. I have to restrain myself when cooking with it, as I know from experience that it can easily overwhelm.
The most expensive spice (along with vanilla), saffron is gathered from the deep orange threads that grow in the centre of the crocus sativus, painstakingly removed from the flowers and dried, then traditionally used in dyeing, perfume; food and teas for their perceived positively therapeutic effect on ‘melancholy’. Saffron undeniably has this effect: there is an instinctive immediacy to the smell and the taste that pulls you back through the looking glass into happier terrain. I am always fascinated by this; the fact that you can intuit a particular plant’s therapeutical magic before even reading up on it; you can sense and physically feel the intrinsic positivity of saffron, though just one inhalation. Known as ‘red gold’ in Iran, where 90% of the world’s saffron is currently produced, this precious spice has been used for tens of thousands of years across the vast majority of the world cultures via the spice trails, used medicinally for depression, insomnia, and reproductive issues; research is currently being done also into its potential usage as a drug to treat Parkinson’s – the crocetin that forms part of its natural essence a potential prophylactic for dementia. In the palaces of Knossos in Crete, where we went as a family in 1987 for our first ever holiday abroad – I vividly remember the exciting, blazing sun, and hiding in the cooler shadows behind great white stone – there are frescoes in the museum I may or not have seen, that depict crocus flowers being picked by young girls and monkeys for their uses by the deities; on the island of Santorini there is another walled painting of a Minoan goddess supervising the ‘gleaning of stigmas’ for the use in some ancient drug. Or possibly the other way round. Fear of the seductive powers of saffron made traders of the past wary of being fed saffron-laced Persian cuisine ; unwitting arousal caused by the ingestion of these tiny aromatic threads leading to lord knows what consequences: saffron clearly is arousing: not a psychological imagining, but a physiological response in the body. The Greek mythical origins of the substance confirm this : in the Crocus and Smilax myth, in which the standard priapically amorous youth unwearyingly pursues a beautiful nymph who eventually tires of the chase, the enchantress uses her bewitching powers to transform him immediately into a living saffron crocus, a flower whose radiant orange stigmas were held up vividly as a ‘relict glow of an undying and unrequited passion’.
In perfume, I find that proper saffron tints tend to be found mainly in Arab or Arab-inspired creations. Some of the sweeter, more balsamic attars infused with a dose of saffron can drive me doolally; a kind of cellular discombobulation where I melt into myself for a few seconds and come out differently. Although not one of my ‘regular ingredients’, I do seem to get a fierce craving for a saffron scent every once in a while – usually in early summer, when you can wear looser and less clothing and a saffron-laced perfume goes perfectly with sun-kissed skin. I remember I went to look for my Montale Velvet Flowers in May or June last year when this urge came predictably over me (the peculiar peach-blossom and saffron combination in that scent is very mood heightening when you are in the right frame of mind for it), but it had leaked; just an intense gunge of dehydrated perfume ingredients that I dripped, burning, onto my evaporated wrists nevertheless.
L’Artisan’s Safran Troublant, one of the most popular niche saffron creations, is a tad duskymusky floatily distant for my own use; Grossmith’s Saffron Rose, on the other hand, a truly gorgeous, rich and sense-drowsing opening accord of Damascene roses and saffron, cinnamon, myrrh, labdanum and oud that eventually tilts into more familiar agar territory but whose opening makes it a very desirable fragrance to own if you are a true saffron lover (it is a prohibitively costly perfume, but definitely one of the best saffrons I have ever smelled – do tell me any others that you would recommend). Byredo’s popular Black Saffron is also undeniably impressive – from about a mile away – but too acrid and hyperbolic up close. A dot here or there though, with a suede or leather jacket, and this scent can work alchemical wonders on the right wearer.
New Bavarian perfume house GCB’s Coeur Du Safran, by Günter Schramm – a firm, full-bodied saffron creation, in some ways has a similar feel to the swaggering, Swedish saffronbomb, but is less tarry, more gourmand in the manner of Mugler – and thus more approachable. Though more dense and sugar-spun than I am used to wearing, it is a nicely balanced upright saffron perfume blended with sandalwood, tolu balsam, benzoin and a touch of orange blossom/musk that, once we start going out of a summer evening again, I think I might wear with a black flannel open-necked shirt and just stride into the light. Like the aforementioned borscht or bouillabaisse, the saffroned tinctures of ancient India; that sensual, tantric aroma; if the perfume is concentrated on saffron, I have no doubt that I will find it fortifying.