Red Gold - Crocus Sativus
We escaped the heat of August this year by holidaying in Cantabria and the Basque Country – both stunningly beautiful, green and cool! On the trip back, we stayed in the amazing town of Consuegra with its hill-top profile of windmills escaped from the pages of Don Quijote. But Consuegra, situated fully in the plains of La Mancha, is also world famous for its red gold – the richly-coloured stamens of Crocus sativus, or saffron.
A visit to a local restaurant, once a pottery, give us an intriguing glimpse into times gone by – photos of the women in long white aprons and bonnets stooping over endless lilac ribbons of crocus woven into the rich red earth painstakingly harvesting the flowers for their red-gold treasure.
A charming old gentleman told us how all the women in his family used to be employed in the saffron fields – but, sadly, nowadays much less so.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and is often considered to be, gramme for gramme, equal to gold. It is worth ten times more than its nearest competitor, vanilla, and fifty times more than cardamom. This is simply because the harvest has to be made by hand and it is a very delicate and time consuming process. Thought to originate from Persia or Turkey, the saffron crocus has been grown in most Mediterranean countries and, perhaps surprisingly, in Northern Europe too. Saffron Walden in England was thus named for its saffron industry which only collapsed when labour
abroad became cheaper.
Saffron is, of course, an essential part of that most famous Spanish dish, paella, imparting not only its rich colour but penetrating flavour too. It is also famously used in French bouillabaisse, Italian risotto, saffron cakes and biscuits in England, Chartreuse liqueur and try it with fresh fish andolive oil! It is also recognised as an important anti-depressant.
Spain is the principal grower and the crop is valued for its high quality (thanks to the extremes of the Manchegan weather) with longer and finer stamens than other producing countries such as Turkey, Greece, France, Iran, Morocco and Kashmir. Only 1.5 tonnes are produced of real Manchego azafrán with a value of €3000 per kilo. Some 350 farmers live from the crop though, in practice, it is often supplemented with pigs.
These autumn flowering crocus are usually planted now and through autumn so that the bulbs can root well during the wet winter months. They will grow without irrigation, their favourite climate being long hot and dry summers with cool wet winters. They can also be planted from May to June but will then, likely, need some irrigation to help them along. Once settled, the bulbs will produce their lovely purple-veined scented flowers every October.
They need deep, well-drained soil enriched with leaf mould, or equivalent, and a full sun position. 5,000 kgs of bulbs are necessary for one hectare and they are planted 12cm to 15 cm deep, traditionally in two lines approx. 10cm apart.
Commercial harvesting of an azafranal lasts for around 20 days, known as the manto with an intense period of 2 to 6 days when the bulk of the crop is picked. Pickers are out at dawn before the sun hits the stigmas, causin them to droop. The entire flower is picked; then the three stigmas of each flower are carefully extracted by hand. For half a kilo of saffron, some 400,000 stigmas are needed. This fine extraction work can last for two months with the stigmas stored in cool, dark and airtight containers. Once the plants are finished flowering, a high potash feed is applied – in the
home situation, liquid comfrey would work well – then a general fertiliser is applied during summer. To give you an idea of the scale of the operation, a hectare will yield around 15 kg in its first year; 30 kg in the second and 20 kg in its third, decreasing thereafter. In practise, the azafranal is replanted after the third year using the young bulblets that are produced around the mother bulb.
Planting up a small area, or a few pots, will give you saffron for the year and save money. But, for me, the real pleasure is in the continuation of a traditional crop and the knowledge that many generations have handled the red gold using the same methods that we use today.
Written by Lorraine Cavanagh.
As printed in the Costa Newspapers.