saffron blooms in the rainshadow
BY MEGAN HILL
It’s not easy to miss Jim Robinson’s tent at the Ballard Farmers Market, even when the street is clogged with shoppers and dogs and strollers. Robinson’s market stand is crammed with hundreds of varieties of tiny succulents, vividly colored and Seussian in appearance. Adorable as they may be, the succulents aren’t the reason Seattle’s cooks grace Robinson’s stand. It’s likely they’re after the decadent strands of saffron Robinson keeps in a tackle box in his booth.
Robinson grows his saffron and succulents at Phocas Farms, situated in the Olympic foothills between Port Angeles and Sequim, on the 34 acres of land where he lived with his parents until his twenties. His interest in saffron dates to his early 1980s obsession with arroz con pollo, a saffron-flavored chicken and rice dish of Spanish origin. Robinson admits that while arroz was his gateway drug, his tastes have shifted over the years. “I’m now a bigger fan of saffron in sweet applications,” he says. “I’ve transcended the savory, and saffron ice cream floats my boat higher than anything else in the water.”
Robinson is given to such quirky turns of phrase, a kind of speech that matches his appearance. Robinson, who has sun sensitivity, covers himself from head to toe even when he’s standing under the protection of his farmers market tent. The draped hood, long white beard, and imaginative parlance give him the air of some sort of rainforest mystic. “My appearance is considered suspect by customs and immigration,” he says.
Saffron has been cultivated for some 3,500 years as a dye, perfume, potion, aphrodisiac, and a remedy for various ailments, mostly by the royalty and nobility who could afford it. Even today, it is the most expensive spice in the world; $20 per gram (more than $500 per ounce) is not an unusual price to pay.
The spice is actually the stigma of the flower of the saffron crocus, a plant that thrives in areas with cold winters and dry summers and relies on human hands for cultivation. The saffron crocus does not produce seeds, but rather grows from corms, a bulb-like entity consisting of what Robinson calls a “solid white mass of genetic material.”
The corms multiply underground, but rely on humans to dig them up, separate them, and replant them every three to five years. As Robinson explains, they reproduce by cloning. “Every corm I have is genetically identical to the ones that produced the saffron that flavored the bathwater of Alexander the Great, allowing him to emerge as a golden-skinned living sun god on the road to Babylon,” he waxes.
Robinson planted his first saffron corms in the summer of 1984, and grew them at first for his arroz con pollo dishes and for gifts to friends. His crop suffered, though, because at that time he and his wife lived closer to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Port Angeles, and the region’s soupy marine layer was detrimental to his harvest. In 2003, Robinson returned to his family farm, near the Olympic foothills, where he’s in the rainshadow that famously brings long stretches of sunshine to the Olympic Peninsula.
“I’m at 900 feet of elevation in the inner aspect of a bent elbow of mountains, in the southwest corner of the rainshadow, so I’m high and dry and out of the fog belt,” Robinson says. “My weather patterns are cold, crisp, clear nights with frost that brings about the bloom. It’s hillbilly heaven.”
With his plants finally growing well, he made the push to go commercial. “I really made an effort at increasing production and getting it out into the public’s mind and palate,” Robinson says.
By 2005 he was selling at the Port Townsend Farmers Market, but his “sad little harvest” sold out the first day and, after that, “I couldn’t give the stuff away for three years. I was at the point of packing it in.”
He didn’t generate a ton of interest until he set up shop at the Ballard Farmers Market in 2009. Now, his saffron graces plates at Lisa Nakamura’s Allium on Orcas Island, and at Zephyr Paquette’s Skelly and the Bean on Capitol Hill.
To keep his fans stocked, Robinson gets to work planting in late summer. His blooms start appearing in early October, when he keeps a close watch on what he calls the “gorgeous lilac-colored torpedoes” of the crocus flower.
“I’m a slave to the bloom from dawn ’til dusk,” he says. He watches closely, waiting until he notices the red stamens peaking out of the still-furled flower buds. “La rosa del azafrán,” he calls it. “Happy day, it’s time to pick them!”
Robinson snaps the flowers, brings them inside, and removes the saffron threads before drying them for an average of 30 hours. They’re then ready for market. He produces around a fourth of a pound of saffron each year from six or seven raised beds, and it takes between 75 and 150 blooms to produce a single gram of saffron, Robinson says.
It clearly takes serious dedication to run this business. To get to the Ballard Farmers Market from Port Angeles, Robinson says he rises well before dawn to make an early ferry, and usually isn’t home until late evening—later if he misses a ferry. The flowers themselves require constant attention, too, to keep them well fed and safe from pests like slugs, who Robinson says have a taste for the crocus petals.
It’s a labor of love, though, one performed without complaint. “I want my clients to have the best damn saffron,” Robinson says. And, according to him, it absolutely is the best. “It’s the finest saffron one could hope to find anywhere on Goddess’s green earth.”
Sidebar: Homegrown Saffron
You can find Jim Robinson’s saffron at the Ballard Farmers Market beginning at the end of January or beginning of February. He usually has about a six month run there, but his saffron will sell out long before his succulents do.
Megan Hill is a freelance writer based in Seattle. You can read more from her at MeganHillFreelanceWriter.com