How Pennsylvania Dutch country became America's saffron capital

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How Pennsylvania Dutch country became America's saffron capital

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How Pennsylvania Dutch country became America's saffron capital

When Justin Hulshizer’s grandmother moved into an assisted living facility, she sent Hulshizer to dig up her yard.

“She told me to dig up the saffron and take it with me,” he says. “It was one of her most prized possessions.”

The bulbs of the Crocus sativus, commonly known as Autumn Crocus, bloom for one week in October. At the center of each purple flower are three crimson stigmas, which are hand-picked, dried and used to flavor risottos, pilafs and paellas. It is a hallmark of Spanish, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, and in parts of Spain and Iran, thousands of violet blooms carpet hillsides.

But Hulshizer wasn’t digging up bulbs in Spain or Iran, and his grandmother wasn’t using her saffron in paella or Uzbek plov.

Hulshizer, 42, grew up in a central Pennsylvania region food historians call “the Yellow Belt,” where Pennsylvania Dutch (or deutsch, meaning German-speaking) cooks have been using saffron in traditional dishes for generations. In the 18th century, Amish and Mennonite homesteaders from Lancaster County traveled regularly to Philadelphia, where they’d trade with Spaniards. One of the goods they brought home was saffron bulbs, which grew well in the area’s clay-heavy soil and flourished in a humid climate of bitter winters and sweltering summers.

Photo via Getty Images/Viperagp

Historian William Woys Weaver called them Geeldeitsch, or “Yellow Dutch,” for the vibrant color the spice brought to their food.

Today, you’d be hardpressed to find a Pennsylvania Dutch cook without a few strands of saffron in the kitchen. Its sweet, musky flavor is a mainstay in regional dishes like chicken pot pie – which isn’t so much a “pie” as a soup; there’s no crust, just large, homemade noodles colored bright yellow by saffron.  

“We always used it in my family for chicken corn noodle soup, stuffed pig stomach and stuffed beef heart,” Hulshizer says. “If you’re from the area, you know. It’s an interesting thing because people do have that mentality that it’s a foreign flavor. They’re used to it in Indian food or Moroccan food. I grew up with it in chicken pot pie.”

Hulshizer’s saffron crop, which began with his grandmother’s bulbs, takes up seven raised beds alongside his Wernersville, Pennsylvania home. In midsummer, he digs up the bulbs – which, like garlic, produce new “daughter” bulbs – and replants the new growth. Each autumn, he heads out in the early morning, before the flowers wilt in the sun, carefully plucks each stigma and dries them using a secret technique he staunchly refuses to disclose. “It’s what makes my saffron so good,” he says.

Much of what he grows ends up in the kitchen of John Patterson, executive chef of the acclaimed Fork restaurant in Philadelphia.

“Our menu is really focused on the heritage of the area,” Patterson says. “We use local ingredients in dishes that pay homage to the way people in this region were eating for hundreds of years.”

Patterson uses Hulshizer’s saffron in a dish called “Saffron’s Revenge,” which features braised and shredded local rabbit over saffron egg noodles. The plate’s tongue-in-cheek name refers to Hulshizer’s constant battle against the neighborhood critters.

If you can defend against the four-legged foragers, saffron’s a moneymaker. It’s the most expensive spice in the world. Pound for pound, it’s worth more than its weight in gold. A single ounce can sell for more than $80.

Hulshizer won’t be quitting his day job just yet, though. He estimates it would take 100,000 flowers to produce a pound of saffron – a tall order for a handful of raised beds and one guy plucking flowers off their stems.

“You have to hand pick it, you have to dry it, and it weighs nothing,” he says. “It’s labor intensive, and if you don’t do it because you like it, there’s no reason to do it.”

Hulshizer clearly does like it – he’s carrying on a family tradition – and while it’s still an integral part of the regional cuisine, he’s one of the last people in Pennsylvania who bothers to grow it.

“I think for me it’s morphing into a sense of duty,” he says. “Because I know that most of the people that are still growing it are just doing it for their own kitchens, and they’re getting old. It’s so easy to import things now; most people just buy the stuff from Spain and that’s it.”

Locally-grown saffron could still spread new roots in Pennsylvania, though. Chefs like Fork’s Patterson are determined to expose the masses to its complex flavor, and it’s not uncommon to see signs on Amish country front lawns advertising bulbs for sale. Hulshizer gets his kids involved in his own growing and harvesting to get them to carry the tradition onto the next generation. And if you’ve never tried saffron, and don’t know what all the fuss is about, Hulshizer’s pretty sure he can make you a believer. He puts it in everything, and he’s quick with a dinner invite.

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