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Croc’ of Gold

Croc’ of Gold

Forget caviar and even truffles – the world’s most precious food item turns out to be saffron, surprising quantities of which are produced right here on our home soil...

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The humble crocus, a close relative of the iris family, has become a familiar sight to gardeners, who will tell you that the stamens which add the fiery stab of gold to the heart of the flowers are used to make saffron. In fact, they’re only partly right. The precious spice comes not from the common autumn crocus but from just one particular variety, Crocus sativus Linnaeus – and with such a minuscule amount available from each plant, you can begin to see why saffron currently retails at around 30-60 euros/g, depending on its quality and origin. Sounds like a lucrative crop, don’t you think?

The only slight problem is that you’ll need to hand-pick – ideally, this should be done as soon as the flower opens – more than 500 stamens or ‘pistils’ in order to produce a single gram. This means over half a million for a kilo. The plant only produces three per flower, and after picking they’ll need to be carefully oven or sun dried to preserve them, prior to 4-5 weeks’ storage, to allow their full aromatic qualities to develop. Another factor contributing to the market price is the age-old one of spices passing through many hands between the producer and the retail customer. On the other hand, selling direct, an option denied to many workers in under developed economies, has made saffron production an increasingly worthwhile activity in wealthier societies with the spending power to indulge in luxury items. Right here in western France, for example, a growing number of independent saffron producers are doing just that.

As it turns out, it’s nothing new. After conquering Gaul the Romans made themselves at home here, planting not only vineyards but also fields of crocuses, which yielded saffron for dyes, for cleansing the waters of thermal baths and, of course, as a highly prized spice whose use sent out a powerful message of wealth and social standing. It also figured in religious rituals. When the legions departed much of their civilising influence followed suit, and saffron ceased to be cultivated in France until the 8th century.

Things changed, though, after the celebrated victory over Saracen invaders by Frankish forces, commanded by Charles Martel, in the Battle of Poitiers in 732. Like the Romans, the Moors had brought with them supplies of saffron, whose culinary and medicinal properties were thus rediscovered, prompting a significant revival in crocus cultivation both here and in Spain. Poitou-Charentes became a significant producer with the coming of the Black Death in the mid-14th century, when large quantities of saffron were employed in an attempt to disinfect homes of families stricken with the disease. Significant saffron – ‘safran’ – production continued locally until the bulbs were destroyed by frost during an exceptionally severe winter around 1765, when temperatures plunged to below -30°C. Few had the means or inclination to replant, not least since such hard times provoked a more general decline in those working the land, apart from those involved in viticulture and wheat production.

A handful of workers kept the tradition alive, however, and today their successors have been joined by a surprising number of enthusiastic and dedicated new producers. Among them are members of the Union Française des Professionnels du Safran, and/or Les Safraniers du Poitou-Charentes, with a regular presence at local markets or selling direct from the farm. And, since flowering time is between late September and early November, now might be the perfect moment to see this time-honoured activity at its colourful best.

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Quality control

Buying locally produced saffron makes sense, not only since you’re supporting the region’s small farmers, but also as you’ll have the reassurance of a provenance which other sources can’t always provide. Anything with sky-high values is fair game for opaque trading practices, and saffron is no exception. Spain’s annual production, for example, amounts to around 1.5 tonnes, yet an estimated seven tonnes are sold as ‘Spanish saffron’. This is explained by Iranian traders having set up companies on Iberian soil, exploiting a loophole which allows them to market Iran-sourced saffron (whose typical market value is half that of the more highly-regarded Spanish product) as ‘Producto de España’.

Since 1994 the ISO 3632-2 has set a minimum standard for both filament and milled saffron, by way of tightening up quality control. Why? Because it’s not unknown for counterfeiters to attempt to mimic saffron using turmeric, yellow dye, chilli, marigold petals, etc. Fortunately, once you know what to look for, the real thing is readily identifiable by its unique spicy aroma and deep red colour. If you drop saffron threads in water they should swell and tint the water with vibrant yellow. Taste it and it should be bitter and spicy, and if you’re still not convinced that what you have is true saffron then carefully examine the individual threads – you’re looking for a red, trumpet-shaped upper portion, linked to a more slender yellow tendril. If they’re not connected then be wary.



For a list of local producers see here.