Features | Article saffron

Saffron, the red gold of spices


It is 6 in the morning. The chill runs through the bodies and everything is ready to go.

As every year, the last weekend of October the region of Castille la Mancha dresses up to celebrate, as of a ritual ceremony, the recollection of the saffron rose. An agricultural production with a long known family background, that is developed as a social tradition in the genuine Spanish villages spread mainly in the provinces of Toledo, Ciudad Real and Albacete. An opportunity to transmit from from parents to their children the knowledge of the harvest and the subsequent handling of the flower Crocus Sativus from where the saffron is obtained, granting the continuity of a cultural tradition that was close to the verge of extinction.


Until the late 70's, Spain was the first world producer of saffron, with 4,000 cultivated hectares. Now it hardly has 150 hectares, that are in hands of 500 producers, most of them are families with small agricultural exploitations, that subsist challenging in each harvest the oscillating prices and the ram of unfair competitors, who use the name and the value of the saffron to adulterate and forge it. The price of this spice comes determined by the hand labor that is needed for its harvest and not by the difficulty of the crop. Not in vain it is the most expensive spice in the world and it is commonly known as 'Red Gold', with a price that can hover close to the 3,000 Euros for the producer and that it may get sold to the final consumer at 8 Euros the gram.


It is precisely the use of handcraft techniques in its cultivation, harvest and the handling  that awards it with a singular and unique personality that increases so much its price. Its bitter taste, the characteristic smooth aroma and the color, containing a natural dye called crocin, that gives the food its characteristic bright yellow color, that makes this spice stand between the most appreciated ones in the traditional cuisine of many countries as a condiment and a colorant that gives license to kook all kind of creative dishes.


'- One of the most important features of the saffron is that it is a completely natural product.-', states Jose Ramon Plumed, manager of a family business in Monreal del Campo (Teruel), whom cultivates one hectare and a halve of saffron flower in a region where it almost had gone extinct, until the tenacity of some small producers from the region brought back the crop, as his father, Jose Maria Plumed, and owner of Azafranes Jiloca, did some years ago. After several years their crops produce about 8Kg of saffron spice, which is distributed directly by the family without intermediaries to hold the prices as much as possible.


Family and workers gather at the field at dawn. The flowers still remain budded, closed, making this the best moment to start the harvest journey. It is the moment of truth, when it is put in to value all the caring days looking at the sky for mercy, hoping to avoid the freezing temperatures or the heavy rains that may damage the crop. The Saffron flower is not a demanding plant weather-wise, but it is for the soil attributes. It grows strong on sunny sand and clay grounds, on altitudes not higher than 700m. It has enough with two rainy seasons a year to complete its development in optimum conditions, one in March to create the bulbs, and an other one in September or October to sprout the flower. Avoiding the fungi that may affect the crop requires a great amount of attention since they are resistant to most of the commonly used biological fungicides. As well as saving the flower from its main enemies, the rodents and the rabbits, that are keen for the bulbs and the leaves respectively. The mice are hunted down using an efficient method that consists in introducing smoke through the underground galleries with the help of a bellow, this helps to avoid using poisonous products that may affect or contaminate the crop. As for rabbits, it is as simple as to build a meshed wire fens surrounding the field. Caution and attention, are the two key words that are not forgotten after the start of the plantation on June.


Producers bare in mind the numbers. Calculations are essential. They know way to well that to obtain 1 kilo of raw stems they will need about 85,000 flowers, and that out of these numbers, they will only obtain 250 grams of red gold. This is the reason why the harvest is crucial, the investments have been done, and the profit of the business depends on this precise moment. The lack of bulbs are one of the main problems in the saffron cultivation. They are scars and expensive. It is necessary 5,000 kilos (about 300,000 bulbs) to plant one hectare (10,000 m2) of saffron plants. This means having to spent about 45,000 euros in a gamble that is not complicated to plant, but risky if rough weather sets in, nevertheless a good production becomes profitable after the first 2,000 m2 .


In Albacete, Azafranes Minaya has a plantation that spans 8 hectares, for this reason they have to hire day laborers who combine the saffron harvest with other agricultural products. Expert Senegalese and Nigerian, that endure the hardest part of the saffron process, just at the end of October, in mids of the flowery, only a wicker basket held in one hand, where the will and patience is needed to pick up the saffron roses. A skill reserved for the well doing taught mainly as part of the family heritage, a skill that requires an energetic, accurate and clean pinch between the stem and the calyx to avoid that the stigmas detach from the flower. In a five to six hour journey, each person recollects between 12 and 14 kilos of flower, that are stoked-up and transported with care to the facility where the unblading process will take place, the action of separating the red stigmas from the yellow pistils, called 'lengüetas', and from the purple leaves.


The exclusivity also resides in the fact that for a kilo of toasted saffron 200 hours of labor is needed to extract the 'brin' – the red stigmas- from the flower. The organization Slow Food, a world organization that stands up for local foods, and fights against the growing fast food market, carried out a study in 2004 establishing the saffron from Jiloca as one of the key products in the province due to its excellent quality. In the region of Castille la Mancha, the artisanal producers like the ASOMA Cooperative, in Villacañas (Toledo), and in Albacete, Azafranes  Minaya, sited in the village under the same name, dispose of a Designation of Origin quality seal, that guaranties the excellence of the prime material, that, unlike the Iranian – currently the main wold producer-, does not mix the red stigmas with other parts of the saffron rose.


Gathered in adjacent tables, with the flowers piled in the center, starts the unblading, accompanied by a hardly comparable combination of color and fragrance, the process of separating the three red filaments from the pistil. Threads of three strands of very vivid red color are accumulated, shiny on day light, and with a not too intense aroma. The families work nonstop, handling the flower with care and accuracy, while they share talks, laughters and remarks during the relaxed unblading afternoons. Each one earns according to the weight of the unbladed saffron they produced, and as they finish, they cue to put a disposable dish on the weighing scale held by their yellow and purple tinted fingers due to the natural colorant from the stamen and the flower leaves. Traditional measures are still used for the saffron, one ounce (28,5 grams) and the pound, that is equivalent to 12 ounces or 342 grams.


It is the moment that everyone starts to explain the properties and benefits of the saffron. Each one starts rescuing, speaking out loud, the multiple uses and applications. The history of the red gold is very distant. It was used in ancient Greece to produce perfumes and natural dyes due to its chromatic properties, while the Egyptian doctors during the pharaoh era prescribed it to ease stomach aches and to embalm. It was said that Cleopatra use to bathe between saffron flowers to smoothen her skin and that the Romans use to prepare pillows with stamens convinced about the aphrodisiac properties of the flower. Threads of saffron where also found interwoven in carpets from ancient Persia.


In the Middle Ages, Venice centralized the saffron trade in the Mediterranean countries, while Nuremberg became the center for the European trade. In this German city is where, doe to the high value of this spice, was imposed the first control against the saffron fraud, called the Safranschou, with which all the traders where examined and any adulteration of the product was severely punished, from saffron sold with horse meat threads, pieces of onion skin, colored chalk, soaked in honey, to marigold petals. Such were the fraud levels in England, that King Henry VIII, who adored the saffron perfume, imposed sever punishments to fight against it, even sentencing for the death penalty.


The Arabs use to give it medical uses thanks to its anesthetic properties, being them who introduced the saffron farming in Spain between the centuries VII and IX, becoming a product for the gentry with restricted access for the lower social classes. Currently it is an indispensable spice for a multitude amount of traditional dishes around the world.


Saffron is known and used mainly in cooking, thanks to its aroma and the shiny golden color it gives to the food. But it also cures. Hippocrates recommended it for the dyspepsia and tooth aches. For the oriental cultures it brings knowledge and happiness, as it was also used in combination with opium to cure hysteria. With multiple therapeutic and medicinal uses, it is a good regulator of the blood coagulation, strengthens the hart, reliefs the menstrual cramps, fights against mental disorders, calms the coughing and the bronchitis and it is a potential source of anti-cancer agents.


The properties of the saffron are enhanced in the last step of the process: the toasting. The treads are spread manually on a sieve – a round object made of wood with a piece of clothe covering it- and are heated to a temperature between 50 Cº and 80 Cº until it dries up. It is during this process that saffron acquires its superior aromatic and colorant capacities.


This is the way the most expensive spice in the world is obtained. A process that in Spain results in 1,500 kilos per year which is mainly exported to international markets like Switzerland, Finland, Belgium, Germany and France, as well as United States and Canada. It is surprising that Spain is the second world producer -after Iran, who has the 90% of the global market- but occupies the first place in exports, supplying the outside market with 10,000 kilos of red gold. The reason is simple, the unfair competition created by fraudulent trade conducted by companies that have installed in Spain, who import Iranian saffron – cheaper and lower quality due to the mix of different flower parts- and export it as  a Spanish product, using the name and the recognition that this product has.


The producers of Castille la Mancha and Teruel demand for law changes that make mandatory to distinguish the origin of the prime material through the labeling of the saffron products, as well as information campaigns that help the consumers to identify the  Designation of Origin as a quality seal that guaranties the natural process of the Spanish saffron, since these fraudulent practices have even penetrated in the Spanish market implementing the consumption of imported saffron, due to cheaper prices and being widely present in the supermarkets.


Saffron, a crop that survives due to the tenacity of those who deny to loose the tradition of an exclusive product that transforms in to excellent all that it touches.


Text: Elisa Pavón


Translation to English: Xabier Mikel Laburu




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© Xabier Mikel Laburu, all rights reserved.  

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