In my last blog, I started describing my daughter Saffron’s bat mitzvah and how it was so linked to the precious spice. But I realised I haven’t told you how I came to name her Saffron in the first place. You know how some things in life happen back to front? Well, I knew my daughter’s name before I had even met my husband! When I was in university, I met a beautiful girl who was dating a friend of mine. As she said her name, ‘Saffron’, I told her, ‘that’s the best name I have ever heard. If I ever have a little girl, she will be Saffron’. My friend Saffron told me that she was named after the part of Donovan’s famous song Mellow Yellow which goes ‘I’m just mad about Saffron‘, and the song has become a theme in our home too.
So back to Saffron’s party. To recap quickly, the bat mitzvah theme was inspired by a European saffron harvest witnessed through the windows of a train chugging through the countryside. My home was the train’s destination, the little village of La Mancha where a fragrant saffron festival takes place every year in October. So my creative task was to transform my house into a village in late summer bloom. Our house has the magical ability to morph into so many different places. In my mind, I created a fantasy about how I wanted this to play out. I imagined that the guests would walk into a little village at siesta time so as first to focus on the bat mitzvah ceremony. People would feel the village in a glimpse, in a tease, but all the little shops would be closed. They would see big baskets of harvested saffron, created out of cupcakes with sugar paste saffron petals. My house was transformed into a market square with each door on our veranda disguised as the facades of little restaurants, bakeries, a paella shop and of course a gelateria. We created authentic, wrought iron, hand painted signs for each little business.
As the guests walked into the village, they got a sense they were in a European village, but the little eateries were closed adding to a sense of suspense and excitement. After the Havdalah ceremony, I wanted the guests to find themselves in the midst of a village that was now waking up. Enter an acting troupe! I sourced actors from all over the city to help the guests transform into players in this performance and the line between fantasy and reality became blurred. After the Jewish ceremony and the horah dancing, there was a momentary lull where the guests looked around wondering what was next. Suddenly, a baker ran out of the bakery calling ‘Luigi, Luigi’ and the shutters opened from the upstairs balcony where a washing line was hanging with granny panties, triple D bras and skirts drying in the breeze, and an old Italian mama started shouting at the baker to keep quiet. The guests turned around to face the facades which had been closed during the ceremony. Suddenly, shutters opened and the little village winery opened serving saffron gin and a sommelier started teaching everyone about European wine varieties. The little village fruit shop got busy juicing the season’s best fruit for the children. At the same time that the music started in the trattoria, actors dressed as waiters flapped crisp white linen tablecoths onto wooden tables and before the guests knew what had happened, they found themselves in a vibrant country village. The guests were pulled between one scene and another and then suddenly, some of the villagers called in a lilting European accent, ‘Saffron, Saffron, where is Saffron?’ And there was my daughter, beaming, her sometimes shyness falling away as she stepped into the limelight of her bat mitzvah moment and the actors opened the village. Suddenly she was lifted up on a chair with petals falling on her. I can still see her beaming, taking centre stage, glowing in the love and the fun and the surprise. Can you imagine spending an evening, in your suburbs where you feel completely transported? I’m told afterwards that people walked around with their mouths slightly open. A bucolic European village was bustling in our garden.
Of course there was a lot of effort put into the food. Saffron the spice is Jewish and mystical. But saffron is also an exotic flavour and it had to be the focal part of the menu. Let me just say that I am very grateful that my daughter has great taste in food and I intended to integrate all her very favourites into the menu. I was delighted when I asked her what she wanted for dessert and she said she wanted poached pears infused with saffron. When she was little, she used to ask me to ‘make me the pears with me inside’. She loved that her name is also a spice. As you know, I’m a foodie and I love really good home cooked food and lots of world flavours. I just feel lucky that my girls’ taste-buds seem to have acquired this family gene.
Let me share some highlights: For dessert, I had been concocting a special surprise. Not many kids will eat paella but if you make them a chocolate paella, they ‘might’ try it. Picture an authentic, two-handled giant paella pan from Spain. Picture a pile of hand molded and painted chocolate shellfish, bright orange chocolate lobster, grazed black mussels and yellow stone crabs sitting on a bed of chocolate rice, handmade from small white chocolate grains. Imagine what children do with that….
Of course a Spanish village is not complete without real paella too, a most famous Spanish dish. I used my own recipe which I had learned during my travels in Spain and I was able to flavour it with authentic Spanish saffron which I had bought and kept from my travels.
The little boulangerie wasn’t going to be authentic unless there was real bread being baked there. The smell of fresh bread wafted into the garden. As an extension of the boulangerie, I used one of our favourite possessions, an iconic French citroen, a deux chevaux (2 CV) , the open trunk filled with baguettes to capacity. The baguettes were eaten with my own secret recipe of bouillabaisse, a south of France fish soup recipe made with saffron.
Saffron is also integral to Italian food and the risotto Milanese is famous for its saffron. I imagined an Italian kitchen replete with mamas shouting out to gorgeous Italian sous chefs. We have a farm style kitchen which is where my confectionery business began and is the heart and soul of my home (don’t be surprised if I invite you to dinner and we eat at our wooden table in my kitchen hearth). To create this Italian, rural theatre, I wanted people to walk into our kitchen and feel themselves surrounded by fresh vegetables, antipasta, my famous artichoke dip and handmade pasta being rolled, cut and hung to dry on wooden ladders before your eyes. I appointed a friend of mine who is an incredible Italian restaurateur to help transform our kitchen into a little Italian trattoria . I asked her to use my recipe for the fresh tomato and basil sauce, Saffron and Scarlett’s favourite. From flour to plate, people watched their meal come to life. Some of the actors were planted in the kitchen, including a pregnant mama and Yudi Cohen transformed from Havdalah leader to Head Chef. Yudi belted out Nessun Dorma to contribute to the atmosphere. The children also lining up for their dinner were spellbound by a theatrical combination of homemade pasta and in-house opera.
There was a lot of detail at the party. But in talking about Saffron and Scarlett, it would be remiss not to mention their precious rag-dolls, Liquorice and Strawberry who were dressed in identical clothes to my two daughters for the occasion, and popped out before the party began for a photo shoot. My friend Sharise arrived many years ago for a dinner party with these two dolls as a gift for my daughters. We named the red haired doll Strawberry and the black haired doll, Liquorice. We have travelled all over the world with them, from gondolas in Venice to taking them up the Eiffel Tower and flying them in helicopters over the Okavango. My daughters adore them. When I think about it, these dolls represent the closeness that my daughters have for each other as sisters. The dolls reminded me that these celebrations of life are not about being fancy-shmancy. The effort and the detail and the fun helps create memories that have become the fabric of who we are.
At the end of the night, Saffron, half asleep told me that it was the best night of her life. For me too, those words were like nectar. I had stressed about making her bat mitzvah more extraordinary than anything else. And what mattered most, is that she loved it, from the ceremony to the party to the theatre to her dolls. The answer to her bat mitzvah had been there all along; it was all in Saffron.