World’s Most Expensive Spice at Home in Seattle

In this new column, Megan Hill will chronicle farmers, fishers and the issues they face.

When I first met Jim Robinson at the Ballard Farmers Market, I was after his succulents. These tiny, adorable plants are so addicting I rushed home to read everything I could about the plants and Robinson’s Phocas Farms. That’s when I learned he also grows saffron.

It seemed like a weird crop for the Pacific Northwest; saffron historically likes Mediterranean shrubland. But Robinson has grown it near Port Angeles since 1984, when he planted his first corms to satiate his obsession with arroz con pollo, a Spanish dish infused with the spice. (Now, he’s big into saffron ice cream: “Saffron ice cream floats my boat higher than anything else in the water,” he says.)

The crocuses Robinson grows are different than the ones you’ll see blooming around Seattle. Robinson’s Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus, blooms from early October to early December and love well-drained soil, making them tough to grow around Puget Sound’s soggier environs. Phocas Farms is in the rain shadow, so the blooms actually fare well.

Robinson got lucky: local saffron is also incredibly commercial, and he was able to expand his operation beyond his own use. He now grows saffron for chefs around Puget Sound.

Jeff Maxfield of Sky City in the Space Needle has used the aromatic crimson spice in various seafood entrees, and has told Robinson he plans to incorporate it into a dish at the James Beard House dinner in New York this fall. Bruce Naftaly of Le Gourmand and Dustin Ronspies of Art of the Table are customers, and Autumn Martin of Hot Cakes in Ballard recently made a purchase. I’m sure the latter will turn into some molten-chocolate-saffron-deliciousness very soon.

Robinson began trying to sell his saffron in 2008, when he first attended a Farmer-Chef Connection (now the Farmer-Fisher-Chef Connection). There, accomplished local food expert Jon Rowley took notice, calling Jim a week later and striking up a friendship. Rowley recommended Jim’s saffron to Chef Lisa Nakamura, who was then heading the kitchen at The Herbfarm.

“Since then, I have been blessed with no small measure of success in establishing solid relationships among the chef community,” Robinson says.

Nakamura still uses Robinson’s saffron at her restaurant, Allium, on Orcas Island, in a saffron clam chowder and in a Manila clams appetizer. It still makes occasional appearances at The Herbfarm, including a recent saffron ice cream.

So many chefs are contacting him that Robinson thinking of expanding his growing operation. He currently tends six or seven raised beds that produce around a fourth of a pound of saffron each year. Growing the world’s most expensive spice isn’t easy (a half gram packet from Robinson will set a chef back $20, though the spice is pungent and just a touch goes far) so Robinson doesn’t want to expand too quickly. After all, he has to keep a close watch on the crocuses, as the petals are a favorite slug snack, swoop in to pluck the threads at just the right moment, dry them for 30 hours, and transport them all over Puget Sound.

It’s a big job, but he’s doing something right. “It’s the finest saffron one could hope to find anywhere on Goddess’s green earth,” Robinson says. And his clients would seem to agree.

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