Monday, January 12, 2009

I'm Just Mad About Saffron

Saffron Dreams
Saffron Dreams by 3-Penny Princess

Saffron. It is the quintessential color of sunshine, the essence of golden warmth captured. The very name guides one's imagination to sun-drenched fields in semi-arid lands where this exotic spice flourishes, aided by gentle breezes and constant companionship by the sun's glowing rays. It is used to impart the ubiquitous golden hue and unique taste to Spanish Paella, as well as many delicious Greek specialties, Indian dishes, and one of my favorite rice dishes that an old Persian roommate use to make. Just inhaling the aroma can send one on an imaginary tour of some of Europe and Asian's most exotic destinations where the plant is cultivated: Iran (which now produces 94 percent of the world's supply), the sun baked plains of Spain, Greece, and Morocco, and the exotic lands of India and Azerbaijan, which also produce many other valuable spices.

Since pre-historic times, this distinctive product from the stigma of the Saffron Crocus flower has been prized for its unique flavoring ability, medicinal and beautific properties, and as a dyeing agent. According to Wikipedia,

"Saffron-based pigments have been found in 50,000 year-old depictions of prehistoric beasts in what is today Iraq. Later, the Sumerians used wild-growing saffron in their remedies and magical potions. Saffron was an article of long-distance trade before the Minoan palace culture's 2nd millennium BC peak. Ancient Persians cultivated Persian saffron in Derbena, Isfahan, and Khorasan by the 10th century BC. At such sites, saffron threads were woven into textiles, ritually offered to divinities, and used in dyes, perfumes, medicines, and body washes. Thus, saffron threads would be scattered across beds and mixed into hot teas as a curative for bouts of melancholy..."

... Ancient Mediterranean peoples—including perfumers in Egypt, physicians in Gaza, townspeople in Rhodes, and the Greek hetaerae courtesans—used saffron in their perfumes, ointments, potpourris, mascaras, divine offerings, and medical treatments. In late Hellenistic Egypt, Cleopatra used saffron in her baths so that lovemaking would be more pleasurable... Saffron was also used as a fabric dye in such Levant cities as Sidon and Tyre... Such was the Romans' love of saffron that Roman colonists took their saffron with them when they settled in southern Gaul, where it was extensively cultivated until Rome's fall."

Aside from its distinctive aroma and unique flavor, saffron is considered to have healing properties as an antioxidant, anti-carcinogen, and a mood lifter. It is also thought to be a natural insecticide. But to get just one pound of dry saffron requires 50,000-75,000 flowers -- the equivalent of a football field -- and 20 hours of cultivation. The world's most expensive spice, prices range from $500-5,000 per pound of this semi-precious substance.

When used as a dye, it captures the golden rays of the sun in everything from cashmere yarn to brilliant silken fibers, eventually finding its way into sweaters, blouses, and scarves. Truly, this radiant color can lift even the most downcast soul into a brighter, more hopeful state.

But why, do you ask, do one's thoughts turn to golden fields, bright skies, and more hopeful emotional states at this particular time?

Well, let's start with the weather. It's currently a generous 20 degrees outside (generous because my thermometer is sitting in direct sunlight, what little sunlight we can scrounge up these short days. Any exposed skin can easily freeze off after being exposed for 5 minutes. God help you if you walk out with slightly damp hair -- your head may not fully recover for an hour or more. The wind, well, that's another treat. If it's not threatening to blow your house down, it's probably making your ride to work on any high-speed road quite a joy. Especially if you have poorly insulated windows like me.

And then there's the calendar. In my opinion, it's officially the must un-wonderful time of the year. Epiphany has passed. The vibrant lights have been unstrung and packed away, along with every last ornament. The wooden nutcrackers, bizarre reindeer collection, motley assortment of stockings, and all the random holiday tchochkes that people just love to give us have been smooshed into one of 4 giant plastic bins and thrown back into the attic, not to be seen again for 10 months. Nary a single holiday cookie tin remains displayed (in truth, the cookies were long gone way before Christmas, but I do like to keep the pretty tins out for a homey effect). Nope, nothing is left at all. It's as if someone purposely erased the holidays from memory.

If you're like me, you can barely remember how it felt to open presents on Christmas morning by the time you get to New Year's Day. And it sometimes seems as if the longest 10 days are between December 25th and January 4. What a world of difference these 10 days make! On December 25, I'd like nothing more than to sing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" while eating Chritmas cake, building a snowman (in theory, since it rarely snows on Christmas) and roasting chestnuts over an open fire. But come January 4, I'm knee-deep in postponed work, sick to death of holiday cheer, planning the new year's finances and business expenditures, and desperately trying to stop eating the massive piles of chocolate that have accumulated (seriously, my relatives on both sides never get the memo that we don't need 50 boxes of chocolate - if you're reading this, PLEASE stop giving us truckloads of chocolate!). So by the time January 10th hits, I'm chomping at the bit to get on with the year already.

For that reason, I like to bid farewell to the holidays as emphatically as I welcome them in. I love listening to Christmas music for a month straight, but the day after Christmas, there will be no singing of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" or "Jingle Bells." I don't mind the hymns at church for a few Sundays following Christmas, since the church calendar still recognizes the season of Christmastime until the Feast of Epiphany (or in the Catholic calendar, the Baptism of the Lord, which was yesterday). But I don't want to gaze upon a shriveled poinsettia (because I inevitably kill it by not watering it, over-watering it, or not giving it the right amount of sunlight). I don't want to eat peppermint bark. I don't even get the motivation to turn on the Christmas tree lights after New Year's Day, let alone run around to every front-facing window in the house and turn on the battery-operated candles. I even get nauseated when I see red and green.

That's why I bear a very special bitterness towards neighbors who refuse to take down the Christmas lights until April. Are they simply unwilling to let go of the holidays? Or are they just lazy? I can understand the people who go all out with their lights displays and have to start putting them up months in advance. In that situation, I can sort of understand just keeping them up all year round. They key is to not light them (duh). Which brings me back to the "Christmas in April" revelers. It's fine if you're too lazy to keep up with the seasons, but stop lighting up your house through Easter for the love of God!

It's not that I'm a grinch. It's just that I believe in season appropriateness. I insist on buying pumpkins by October. I switch to orange and brown soaps and hand towels by November. And I get frantic if the 4 plastic Christmas bins aren't brought down from the attic by the week after Thanksgiving. I even enjoy shopping the after-Christmas clearance items for 50% off - it's not like the boxes of cards and the wrapping paper won't get used. But as soon as the Feast of Epiphany concludes (and after I receive the annual reminder about curbside Christmas tree pickup from the trash collection service), I am finished with Christmas. No lingering delights around the tree. No pine-scented candles to permeate the house with a woodsy scent. No sugar-cookie hand soap to lather for a faux homebaked flavor (without the guilt). Just a thorough purging of all evidence from the larger-than-life holiday season.

Alas, once I remove all the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and thoughts of Christmas, I am left with a slightly empty feeling. All the excitement has gone, only to be replaced by very short days, boatloads of work, and long evenings in front of the TV and fireplace (which I admit aren't a bad thing, but eventually, we run out of things to watch). Thus starts the longest period of boredom - the countdown between January and the arrival of spring, which could come as early as April or as late as the end of May (like last year). We kind of look at each other and say, "What the heck do we now?" And that's when my friends and I dream up endless inventive ways to make the most of a largely uneventful season: the dead of winter.

First there are the fondue parties. A favorite tradition, and one that almost anyone can enjoy in the middle of the day as well as in the evening. On the heels of fondue come the ski trips, with lodge amenities for those of us who don't ski. Then there are the "fun club" activities, organized by the more creative members of our social circle. For example, the first weekend after New Year's, we toured wineries. The next weekend, we participated in an interactive "Spy Night" at the Spy Museum, followed by drinks and dinner at the Spy Cafe. The next planned activity is to do "Shear Madness" which a surprising many of us have yet to experience. After that will come Valentine's Day, then a somewhat festive Mardi Gras to provide a small respite from the winter blahs - especially if you actually brave the intoxicated masses in the Big Easy and really go all out. Then it's back to art exhibitions of the obscure, foreign films about subjects that either make me think or subjects I hardly think about, and finally, musical performances by genius children from countries I'll probably never visit.

At some point though, all the contrived activities in the world can't take away the cabin fever that threatens to overtake me. There comes a time when winter stops being fun and just becomes dreary, icy, and interminable. It's then that I simply must jump-start the warm season, no matter what it takes. This condition is made infinitely worse by the steady stream of "resort" collections that slealthily trickle in starting early December and are full-blown by January. By February, the pastels arrive and many of the spring collections beckon from their racks as well as from the catalogs that arrive bi-weekly in the mail.

There's nothing worse than shoveling snow in a parka while recalling images of sun-kissed models lounging on the beach in bikinis or island hopping for exotic market finds in shorts, espadrilles, and straw totes. Even worse when I imagine the pasty legs underneath my boots and woolen pants. What to do in this predicament?

Option 1: Hop a plane to a tropical destination. According to J.Crew, "It's always warm somewhere..."

Option 2: Hop a plane to Florida to visit your folks, your great aunt Susie, or your new BFF who recently moved to the Sunshine State.

Option 3: Fake it until you can get the real thing.

If you belong to much of the population that either can't afford to get away or doesn't have time for an island getaway, option 1 is out of the picture. And while I'm fortunate to have mom and dad in Florida and I live 15 minutes from the airport for a generally inexpensive option 2, I rarely find the time to take a real vacation. But a weekend escape doesn't seem worth it because it will only tease me with a tiny bit of sun before I have to return to piles or work and miles of slush.

That leaves many of us with option 3. So why not make the most out of it? Happily, J.Crew is always ready to oblige. Because, when you can't get away to Ibiza, or Casablanca, or St. Tropez, or Capri, J.Crew will take you there -- vicariously, of course. And when you do get there (in your wild imagination, of course), what will you be wearing?

I'm starting with my favorite shade -- Saffron. Found in many items in the past two seasons, this incredibly flattering hue highlights my creamy peach complexion without overwhelming my light, perpetually under-sunned skin. I've tried other derrivations of yellows in previous years: Honey Glaze, Burnished Yellow, Citron, and everyone's favorite, Sour Lemon. The first two contain a touch of brown or olive essence, which makes me look like I'm wearing Dijon mustard and has an unfortunate dulling result on my not-too-bright winter face. The second two resemble limeade and bring out too much ruddiness in my often-irritated winter skin.

Saffron is just right. The sunny yellow is mixed with just a twinge of orange, resulting in the ideal shade of gold that even light-skinned gals with a creamy complexion can pull off. It doesn't have any brown, olive, or citrus elements. It's just a radiant, happy shade that channels pure sunshine. I can only imagine donning a saffron-hued tunic on the sunny coastline of Tangiers, or gathering lavender into a saffron-colored tote on the open fields of Provence.

Other recent colors in the general saffron family include: Tangelo (a tad more marigold but still more golden than its deeper Cantaloupe cousin)), Light Pumpkin (a saffron-tangelo blend in a slightly more subdued version), and Buttercup (sunflower yellow mixed with a bit of buttery beige). Sometimes Deep Yellow can also be mistaken for Saffron, though some older Deep Yellows resembled the more olivey Honey Glaze.

Aside from radiating rays of sun itself, I sometimes think about radiating a bright, warm red. More like a medium tomato red, not a deep brick red. A warm, not-too-dark, orangy-red rather than a full-blown lipstick red is just my cup of tea. I've already waxed prolifically about the wonders of Persimmon and its newer version, Cerise. Yet another incarnation has cropped up this season in another flavor, Bright Tangerine. This shade is another wonder for the chronically undertanned as it brightens up a pale slightly yellow-toned complexion without feeling too jarring. It instantly transports me to Capri, where I'd much rather be. Or maybe the Canary Islands.

No island escape would be complete without a shot of brilliant turquoise to match the blue-green waters of your favorite seaside destination. I prefer to stay in aqua territory -- not too blue and not too green. I've tried the bold Mediterranean Blue present in many fall items. Striking shade, but too dark and too blue for me -- I don't look good in any blues or purples except navy and the occasional browny-plum. I then tried the fresher, lighter Spearmint that debuted in a few winter sweaters, but this proved to be too green (and too pastel). My happy mediums are Bright Turquoise (a clean, medium turquoise) and Tropical Aqua (a medium aqua with just a tad more green than the turquoise). Both are highly flattering in that they bring out my peachiness without exagerrating my redness.

Finally, there is that holy grail of peachy-pink coral that looks marvelous on so many complexions but is surprisingly hard to come by in a sufficiently striking form. Coral can often be another name for red, and sometimes, coral masquerades as pink. But to find the perfect melding together of the two shades -- without going to light or too dark -- is an art. One color that J.Crew has managed to blend to perfection is Bright Papaya. Not to be confused with the more pastel regular Papaya which is reminiscent of a fresh salmon, Bright Papaya is a punchy hue that's not afraid to be noticed. As its name implies, it's certainly bright, but it's not screaming. It's great for the peaches 'n' cream-complexioned as well as those with slightly yellow and slightly pink undertones. It lends a Caribbean vibe to your basic camel, beige, navy, black, gray, and white.

Between these 4 exotic colors, I've found solace in my closet. Thanks to J.Crew's persistent efforts to whisk me away to exotic destinations and their tireless search for the most incredible colors available in a ball of yarn, I can express an uplifted inner mood regardless of the outside atmosphere. Which is good, because I may never visit New Zealand. Or sunbathe in Fiji. Or eat fresh dates in Tunisia. But at least I be inspired to whip up a mean Spanish Paella while wearing a scarf dyed with prized saffron from La Mancha. That will have to suffice -- for now.

Couldn't stand the cabin fever and the 20-degree chill. Booked a ticket to the Florida to visit mom and dad. Can't wait to lap up the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico while sipping a delightful margarita and nibbling on delicious oranges from the yard!


Slastena said...

You are going to hate me- I still have my tree and everything else up. Granted, we do not do much decoration outside, so it's all hidden in the house. May be next week.:) Today I finally got to unpacking our post-ski bags which have been laying around since X-mas, so I guess X-mas tree will have to wait another week. If i could, I would keep it all year round, I love holidays so much and you are right, it's all blah now. I guess I am compensating by not letting the tree go.
The idea of fondue party resonates well with me. I love fondues and have a small fondue pot of my own. My favorite one is broth and wine based, not cheese.
Loved reading our post, thank you for taking time to write it. It's like a mini-essay!:)

3-Penny Princess said...

Oh, I don't hate you:) A lot of people in my neighborhood still have trees up. Anyway, it's kind of expected that most people have holiday stuff out through January. It is such a dull month! I just now vacuumed the final pine needles and cleared out the last of the wrapping paper and boxes that were still sitting in our living room. And only because my mom is coming and I had an urgent need to finish cleaning the house. We still have a couple of presents that are sitting in the living room because we have yet to see the people that we need to give them to!

Yes, fondue was a blast! My friend hosted this past weekend and it was so tasty -- not to mention toasty! We all camped out in front of the fireplace and had lots of wine and fondue. I have 3 fondue sets which I lent to her. I'm not familiar with the broth-based recipe. What does it taste like? I personally like a twist on the traditional Swiss as well as Mexican and Italian versions. We did have a to-die-for chocolate fondue too. I actually helped cook all the fondues. It's so much fun and the perfect thing to do this past week when it's been so unbelievably cold.

Can't wait to warm my feet in Florida though! I'm bringing down lots of yellow and orange, and I've been wearing it to help get me into the spirit. Hopefully this won't be as long a winter as last year!

FabulousFloridaMommy said...

Great post! I took all of my Christmas decorations down the weekend after New Year's. It's nice to have the house back to its *normal* state. ;) When are you arriving in Florida? I hope you have a fabulous time! If you make it up my way send me an email...maybe we could meet up for coffee. :)

3-Penny Princess said...

FFM - isn't it kind of comforting to see the house back to normal? The Christmas stuff is pretty, but I feel more calm when I'm not thinking about the holidays (as everyone probably gathered from my holiday post).

I am arriving in Florida on Sunday and leaving the following Sunday. I just checked the weather report and thankfully it's starting to warm up. They are forecasting more "normal" weather while I'm there, so this will be awesome! I've already sent a large box down with my clothes (I don't like to check baggage, especially on connecting flights). Anyway, I couldn't figure out what to bring since the temperature has been ranging from 39 to 78, so I figured it's better to bring all sorts of stuff just in case.