More precious than gold

Across the world, saffron is used in a range of applications from food to cosmetics and even medicine. Known as one of the most expensive spices, saffron can sell for $50-60 for a single gram in Australia, making it literally worth more than gold. Baking Business speaks with Tasmania’s Eladnelle Farm director Jen Hancock about just what makes this product cost so much, and why it’s absolutely worth it.

Tell us a bit about Eladnelle Farm:

The farm is 250 acres and very hilly, and we’ve got a good, sizeable area that is north-facing, which is perfect for saffron. When we first got to the farm, the land was leased. We leased it to a chap so we didn’t have to worry about it at first—for about 12 months—apart from the saffron field that we’d set up. The saffron is currently only in 400sq m, however we pull all the corms out at the end of next month [December], because there’s still some green shoots there and they all have to die out before you can pull the corms—which are bulbs—out, and then separate them.

More precious than gold. More precious than gold
What’s your background?

We’ve only been here just over four years; we moved over from Melbourne with 18 months in Canberra on our way through.

We both love the weather down here, and it works for saffron—or it does most times. Last year wasn’t too good for a crop after a very mild summer, but otherwise it’s been good. When we moved here, neither of us with any farming experience at all. I’d been a registered nurse for 40-plus years and Lee was in the navy for years and years, and then with telcos.

How does saffron grow?

The ground needs to cool enough—you need minimum of 5 degrees Celsius temperatures to get the ground cold in March, first off, and then the flowers start to flush. If you get a frost you really think, ‘Oh yes!’ because you know that should really help.

We planted 10,000 corms in early March, 2018—that was our first time—and about four or five weeks later they bloomed (“flushed” is the technical term). I actually counted every flower that year, and that was 1010 flowers. It sounds a lot, but that’s only five grams of saffron.

Basically, as soon as the flowers appear, you try to pick them because you don’t want the sun to damage the stigma (the saffron part of the flower). The flowers are called Crocus sativus, and they’re the only Crocus that produces saffron.

Then the flowers die off, and you keep weeding and basically just trying to keep the ground clear, and they (the corms) multiply each year, and that’s why you get more flowers. By now, they’ve been in the ground nearly four years and when we pull them out, we should have eight to 10-times what we originally put in. We’re expecting between 80,000 and 100,000 corms.

We’re re-planting them in fresh ground, and it should be an acre by then.

What are the challenges of saffron growing?

For the most part, it’s the harvest, but then you have to weigh it and package it, which is time-consuming as well.

In 2019, we actually got 205 grams. According to what was projected from our information, we should have got 50. We’d had really good weather conditions, so we had workers that year.

In the past two years it dropped off, which again is back to climate. The numbers weren’t as good because we had had quite mild summers and lots of rain when we didn’t want rain. The rain can be good when they’re coming into harvest, but not so good over summer.

Tell me about how it’s processed:

It’s a six-week harvest period from April to mid-May (sometimes a little bit earlier or later). The first two weeks and the last two weeks are generally lower yields, but in the middle two weeks it can just explode.

You pick them below the flower to get the whole flower, then it’s basically pulling the flowers apart. We all sit around a table with these baskets of flowers in front of us and the dehydration trays and pick the flowers apart to get the stigma. Where we personally differ from a lot of other growers is, we don’t leave the stigma intact, as in going from three strands into one.

If you look at a stigma, it’s bright brilliant red on the strand, but as it gets closer to the style, it gets orange and then yellow. That’s actually floral waste content, not saffron. We take that off, because we just want to sell the pure saffron. Our customers are getting more bang for their buck because it’s sold by weight.

Then it goes in the dehydrator. On a day when we’ve got a really big pick of flowers, we might have the workers here for six hours or more just processing, then for me it’s two hours of working the food dehydrator.

Then I put the finished saffron into big glass jars, labelled, ready to package. It can be a really long day.

Where/how do you sell it?

We started at Farmgate Market, which is a full food and drink market in Bathurst Street, Hobart, in January 2019. There was another grower in the village here who no longer wanted to do it, so we took over their crop—we leased it—and sold what they had and our own first five grams. That helped us get going.

Then there’s online sales. We’ve started to get more interest; we’ve got two restaurants that use it, it’s at a specialty grocer called Hill Street Grocer at Sandy Bay, and I’m selling maybe six to 10 a month there, I’ve got some interest from a wholesaler in Melbourne, and there’s a chap who uses it to make ice cream down here. Another couple make crumpets, and they have a saffron crumpet.

We do three sizes: a 150 mg, 1.5 g, and 5 g.

What’s the best way to use saffron?

I’m really pushing the idea that you can make cakes with it and that desserts can be lovely with it. Lee, my husband, loves poached pears with saffron. I personally like apricots, but I’ve also got a lovely lemon cake recipe with a saffron and cinnamon syrup that you pour over the top.

The other thing we really push is that if you’re going to use saffron, that you steep whatever you’re going to use for 24 hours prior. It really makes a difference and you just get a lot more out of your saffron.

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