Precious Gold: Growing California Saffron at Peace & Plenty Farm


The relentless life of a farmer is a far cry from the couture runways of Paris, but Melinda Price wouldn’t trade a minute of her present for all of her past. At 5’ 11” this former fashion model still draws attention whenever she enters a room, but these days it’s her quick smile and passionate connection to the land that draw people in. 

Melinda Price

Alongside her capable partner in life and business, Simon Avery, she is finally living her dream life as a farmer; a dream she first conceived in 1987 as a starry-eyed twenty something. But dreams have a timeline of their own, and this one would take thirty plus years to reach fruition. 

In her twenties, Melinda fell easily into the modeling world. Her statuesque height and blond, blue-eyed Dutch heritage made her a natural. She had the inside track with big name European designers. She was in demand. She was living the fast-paced, high profile life that was the envy of many young women her age. On the outside it looked like she had the world by the tail, but on the inside her world was crumbling. The demanding and often cruel realities of staying on top of the game was sucking the life out of her soul. 

“It nearly killed me,” she will confess softly from the vantage point of hindsight. 

What saved her in that dark time was the vision she had long held to be a farmer.

She craved a simpler, more authentic life away from the limelight. She had no experience in agriculture; no family history of working the land. Only a deep, inner calling that constantly circled her waiting to be born into reality. She left modeling, and eventually had a daughter she raised as a single mom while working jobs in catering and tech. 

Then in 2016, Melinda went on a blind date with a strappy British-born wildlife biologist named Simon Avery. In him she found not only a soulmate, but a partner who shared her love of the land and a desire to cultivate it. Then the real work began. First, they had to decide what to grow. They set their sights on researching unique novelty crops with high culinary appeal. After considering everything from wasabi and vanilla to mushrooms and hops, they landed on saffron—the world’s most precious and expensive spice. 

Once the crop was decided, they had to find the right place to establish their farm—one with an ideal climate where saffron would flourish. Their search eventually led them to Lake County, California where more affordable real estate, hot summers, and cold winters created the perfect trifecta for putting down roots. They purchased the historic Gaddy Ranch on the outskirts of Kelseyville in the spring of 2017— a flat, seven acre expanse of land with an old farmhouse and barn situated at the mouth of the fertile Big Valley AVA. Then they began planting!

Simon Avery

Most of the world’s saffron is currently grown in the Middle East, primarily Iran, with Spain and a few other countries bringing up the rear. Lesser known is saffron’s deep American roots in the Mennonite and Amish communities where the spice has long been a staple. Highly prized by both chefs and home cooks alike, saffron comes from harvesting the ruby red stigmas of the purple Crocus Sativus flower which blooms each fall in October and November. 

The harvest process is extremely labor intensive, and requires painstaking hand separation of the thread-like stigmas (usually 3 but as many as 6) from each individual flower. A single saffron corm (bulb) can produce multiple flowers each day during harvest season, which requires thousands of flowers to be picked and processed on a continuous basis during the 3 week blossoming period.

I was one of several local volunteers who pitched in for a day to help the couple bring in their massive harvest. We spent hours bending over rows picking the field clean of flowers in the early morning, only to find the rows re-blossoming again in the afternoon.

A surprising side note—turns out saffron is crack for honeybees which swarmed the field and the sorting tables where we tweezed the stigmas free from each blossom.

Ideally, the stigmas are separated and dried within 24 hours of picking to ensure maximum potency of the spice.

When it was done, the 2019 fall crop yielded around 270,000 hand-harvested flowers, making Peace and Plenty Farm the largest grower of organic saffron in the United States.

To order Peace & Plenty Farm’s Organic Saffron online, or to learn more about their farm stays, wedding venue, and events visit their website .

Saffron’s versatility as a culinary spice, along with its mood-boosting health benefits, make it a must-have in every cook’s kitchen cupboard. In addition to traditional uses in classic Spanish and French cuisine like paella and bouillabaisse, saffron adds a beautiful golden hue and subtle notes of flavor when used in baked goods.

I recently experimented using saffron infused milk in this delectable summer dessert recipe for Gluten-free Caramelized Apricot Upside Down Cake—with spectacular results!

I highly recommend taking advantage of apricot season by whipping up this simple, flavorful recipe (below).

Farminista’s Gluten-Free Caramelized Apricot Upside Down Cake with Saffron

(serves 8-10)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • pinch of Peace & Plenty Farm saffron threads
  • 1/2 cup filtered water
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar, 8divided as in recipe instructions
  • 1/2 cup apricot jam or preserves
  • 2 Tbl. unsalted butter + 1 stick unsalted butter (softened)
  • 3 Tbl heavy cream
  • 6 ripe apricots, halved and pitted
  • 1 1/2 cups gluten-free baking flour of choice
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. chai spice or apple pie spice
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 2 large eggs
  • 9″ springform pan

Instructions:

  1. Heat whole milk in a small pan over medium heat. When warm, but not scalded, add saffron threads. Stir and remove from heat. Allow the milk to cool to room temperature. *The saffron will infuse the milk and turn it golden yellow.
  2. Preheat oven to 350F.
  3. In a small non-stick sauce pan, combine water, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1/2 cup apricot jam. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Simmer for 5-8 minutes without stirring as the mixture reduces, thickens, and turns the color of amber. Swirl the pan occasionally to prevent burning.
  4. Remove pan from heat. Add 2 Tbl butter and cream. Swirl until incorporated.
  5. Line the bottom of the springform pan with parchment paper. Pour warm caramel mixture into the pan and place halved apricots, round side up, in the caramel. Set aside.
  6. In a small bowl, whisk gluten-free flour, baking powder, chai spice, and sea salt. Set aside.
  7. In a medium mixing bowl combine 1 cup sugar and softened butter stick. Beat with an electric mixer on medium sped until light and fluffy (about 4 minutes). Add eggs and continue mixing until thoroughly combined.
  8. With the mixer on low speed, alternately add some of the flour mixture, then the saffron-infused milk, to the butter/sugar mixture (end with flour mixture). Mix until combined and smooth.
  9. Spoon batter evenly over the apricots and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake on the center oven rack for 45 minutes , or when the cake is puffed and golden brown. Test with a cake tester inserted into the center. It should come out clean.
  10. Place cake on a cooling rack for 3 minutes. Loosen the edges of the cake from the pan with a knife. *Do not release spring form yet. Carefully and quickly invert the cake onto a serving plate. *Tip: Place serving plate over the top of the cake, then swiftly invert the cake & plate at once. Release spring form and gently remove. Peel off the parchment paper.
  11. Cool completely and serve with vanilla ice cream or fresh whipped cream if desired.

 

 

Categories: Artisan Products, Desserts, Farms & Ranches, Gluten-free, Seasonal RecipesTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 comments

  1. Thank you for a wonderful story of people and nature’s spices AND a recipe. Fabulous.

    Thanks, Mary-Beth

    707-338-1423 mbraydesign@yahoo.com

  2. Oh my gosh Karen, you have outdone yourself this time. Your photography is so beautiful and I loved the story about Simon and Melinda. Bravo! Your cake looks darn great as well! cheers!

    • Thank you so much Heidi! I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. I love telling the story that connects us to our food purveyors. Knowing where our food comes from and how it is grown/raised is essential to making informed choices that support a more sustainable foodshed.

  3. Karen, you always amaze me. You t such a good writer and story teller! That apricot cake looked amazing. You need to be on TV.

    Love ya !

  4. Beautiful! I’ve actually stayed at their AirBnB last year. It was magical, and I make saffron water and drink a little bit everyday using their saffron.

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