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Originally published March 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 16, 2008 at 9:50 AM

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The world's best saffron — at Costco?

The world's best saffron, also the world's costliest spice, is headed to your local Costco.

Special to The Seattle Times

THE SUN WAS blazing in the clear blue sky, and the dry soil crunched under our feet, but the air was decidedly cool last November when I stood in a field in Spain's Castilla La Mancha region, home of the world's best saffron. There, rows of small purple blossoms brightened the ground. El Azafran, "el oro de La Mancha," gold of the region.

In culinary circles, it's known as the world's costliest spice. But locals, who use it in everything from rice dishes to ice cream, claim the threadlike stigmas that poke from the blossoms of this autumn crocus are a tonic and a sedative. It is said to help people breathe more easily, and indeed, as I inhaled the faint perfume wafting off the mounting pile of blossoms in the basket, I did feel calmer, more focused and generally more relaxed than I had in some time.

Legs spread wide to straddle the rows of delicate plants, we bent at the waist to pluck the flowers. And I marveled at the agility of these people — most of them middle-aged folks who work at other jobs much of the year — to do this all day. The work must be done swiftly because the flowers bloom and die in the same day.

Not long after Antonio Garcia, president of the local saffron foundation, explained all this, Gregoria Carrasco, who sells the saffron she picks through that same foundation, shared a folk song about saffron. I couldn't get all the words, but I got enough to know that it was a love song, and when she reached the refrain, "how beautiful and precious are the fields covered in saffron," Carrasco swept her hand along the horizon so we would take in the beauty all around us.

As soon as we had a basketful of blossoms we were whisked off to a local household. There, a group of women sat around a kitchen table plucking the three red-gold stigmas from each blossom. And as the threads piled up, they were dried in a Chinese bamboo basket balanced over a space heater. At one point, the grandmother lifted the basket and gave it a thrust so the threads of saffron flipped in the air. "Smells good doesn't it?" she asked.

"They say that girls from La Mancha have no trouble finding a husband," said Carrasco, "because they smell like the rose of Azafran." At this, the women chuckled a little, but Carrasco took a more serious tone. "It's true that saffron is romantic," she said, "but it's a practical romance. You see my ring," she said as she twisted her wedding band around her finger. "My husband bought this with money he earned picking saffron. And every year, with money from the saffron, we buy something we need for our home."

I learned that in recent decades, the cooperative that markets the local saffron has had to face stiff competition from foreign growers who falsely claim that their saffron is from La Mancha, and when I saw the difference between the real thing and the falsely labeled stuff, I gulped. I realized that I have been using falsely labeled stuff for years.

"How can they do that?" I wanted to know.

"You have to look for the Denominación de Origen label," I was told. "This year, we're working with a company to help us bypass the middleman and educate people about what a unique product this really is. A company called Costco is going to buy most of our saffron."

"Costco in Seattle?" I asked. It was hard to imagine. But I was assured that buyers from the Seattle-based company had been in town earlier that month, and soon would be the world's single biggest importer of the world's best saffron.

When I got home I spoke with Costco buyer Gary Kotzen. "We're really excited about this," he said, incredulous that I had been in one of the very fields where Costco's "next big thing" was being harvested. But I was equally incredulous. How could this truly artisanal specialty food find its way into my local warehouse store?

"We want the best of the best, and we want to offer it to our members without them having to pay the premium," Kotzen said. "We'll bring it in, package it ourselves and offer it to our members at about one third or even one fifth of the cost of similar saffron . . . We did the same thing in 1997 with Tuscan olive oil."

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By mid-April, or perhaps early May, he said, certified saffron from La Mancha will be in the stores.

So for now, as I lavish a few threads of red gold from La Mancha into my rice pilaf, I'm not worried about when I'll run out of my stash in the little 1-gram bottle. I know that in just a few weeks, I'll be harvesting next year's supply from the aisles of my local Costco. And as I roll up to the checkout, I'll probably hum a little tune. "How beautiful and precious are the fields when they are covered in saffron."

Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com.

Pine Nut Pilaf with Saffron

Makes about 6 cups

¼ cup olive oil

½ cup pine nuts

2 cups Basmati, jasmine or other fragrant long-grain white rice

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped fine

1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

1 cup dry white wine, sake or vermouth

2 cups boiling water

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 generous pinch (about ½ teaspoon) saffron threads

1. Warm the oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat and add the pine nuts. Swirl the pine nuts in the oil until they release some of their fragrance and become lightly toasted. As soon as the pine nuts are golden brown, stir in the rice and sauté briefly, just until the rice is translucent. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes.

2. Pour on the white wine, water and salt and bring the liquid to a boil. Sprinkle the saffron threads over the surface of the liquid and gently stir them in. Cover the pan, reduce heat to low and simmer until the rice has absorbed the cooking liquid, about 30 minutes.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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