"Saffron is very old, very expensive, almost mythical", Jean Matir Thiercelin says, peering at me over his wire-rimmed spectacles. "It has always been adulterated by any means possible. "We're surrounded by shelves lined with apothecary jars in Thiercelin's six-year-old spice shop, Goumanyat et Son Royaume, in the Marais district of Paris. He opens a jar and holds it beneath my nose. Inside are scores of flame-colored threads of pure saffron. I inhale deeply, and my senses fragrance that is almost preternaturally intense — a far cry from the saffron I usually find in the States.
Twice a year, Thiercelin, whose family has been in the spice trade since 1809, travels to Iran, where 95 percent of the world"s saffron is grown, to work with farmers who harvest it takes roughly 150,000 crocus flowers, the origin of all saffron, to produce a single kilogram of the precious spice. The type he sells is pushal grade (pictured, above), so designated because the threads compose the flower's entire stigma. Sargol grade, in which the threads consist of only the uppermost tip, is generally the most expensive, but Thiercelin contends that his pushal possesses more aroma and flavor because it requires less processing. As proof, he notes that some of France's most lauded chefs, including Pierre Gagnaire and Hélène Darroze, use his saffron in their restaurants, but that heavenly aroma is all the convincing I need. (SEE THE PANTRY, page 100, for sources.) — Courtenay Dunk.