Think of expensive and what normally comes to mind-gold or diamonds perhaps, yet there is a spice which also has great value – saffron!
At one time as saffron was grown by ordinary folk it was thought of as the `poor man’s gold.` Saffron comes from the crocus sativus.
Although saffron is also grown in Turkey, France, Italy, Greece, Iran, and India, a large percentage of the world saffron market is supplied by Spain. And it`s from one region of Spain that the very best in quality saffron is produced – La Mancha, an arid, fertile, elevated plateau of central Spain. Its production is regulated and protected by the Origin Denomination “Saffron from la Mancha” to ensure quality control.
Native to the Mediterranean area, saffron was cultivated from early times in Asia Minor. Centuries later, the Moors brought it to Spain and promoted its cultivation. They valued it for seasoning dishes and even used it to treat maladies as varied as toothache, menstrual pain, and the plague. Today, saffron is still esteemed in the kitchen, to flavour rice dishes, in soups, to marinate fish, meat, and adding flavor and color to such famous recipes as Spanish paella and the French dish Bouillabaisse (Seafood Stew). This extraordinary red-gold spice is produced from the stigma of the saffron crocus, related to the crocus that adorns many gardens in springtime. It thrives in the dry limestone ground, making Spain’s La Mancha region ideal for its cultivation.
In La Mancha’s arid plains, little has changed for centuries. Saffron growing begins in early summer when the crocus bulbs are planted in La Mancha’s red soil. In the autumn comes the harvest, which lasts for three weeks. All the work is done by hand, as modern mechanized methods have not yet been utilized.
First comes the backbreaking toil of picking thousands of flowers one by one. This is done toward the end of October, when the first chill of autumn has arrived. Then hundreds of villagers head toward their plots planted with crocuses. They bend over the freshly blooming flowers, and with amazing speed, their dexterous hands pick the delicate crocus flower. Soon their baskets are overflowing with the morning’s harvest, ready to be carried home. There the freshly plucked blossoms are spread on trays so that they can be aired. Now an even more laborious work begins, that of separating the saffron stigma-the female part of the blossom-from the rest of the flower.
Separating the Stigmata
Following the custom in La Mancha, whole families work together to process the harvest. For three weeks they often toil 19 hours a day.The flowers are split open, and the stigmata carefully plucked out. The wet, deep-red stigmata-there are three stigmata to each flower-are collected on plates. And herein lies the great value of saffron, because just one pound of dry saffron requires 50,000-75,000 flowers.
Speed and expertise are essential at this stage, since the stigma has to be plucked the same day that the saffron is harvested. The blossoms wither very rapidly and soon get sticky, making it impossible to remove the stigmata. And the stigma has to be plucked at exactly the right point; otherwise it will not qualify as Mancha Selecta, the choicest saffron of all.
Toasting the Stigmata
After this arduous work is finally done, the stigmata are carefully spread on trays or sieves of muslin gauze for drying. At this point, a charcoal fire is prepared, and the trays or sieves with their precious contents are put over the fire. Every possible precaution is taken to avoid smoking the delicate stigmata. They must be toasted, not smoked.
After just 15 minutes over a low fire, the saffron loses up to 80 percent of its weight. The harvest of one hectare-stigmata weighing nearly 50 kgs – becomes a meager 9 kg of dried saffron. It takes 200 crocus flowers to end up with one gram of saffron.As soon as the drying process is finished, the saffron, which is now a deep-red tangle of filaments, is ready to be stored away. Tightly sealed into dark plastic bags and protected from the light, La Mancha’s “red gold” waits to be sold to a saffron dealer.
Delightful Spice From a Beautiful Flower
Saffron’s somewhat bitter taste is used all over the world to improve the flavor of poultry, rice, and seafood, while Scandinavians enjoy the taste of saffron-flavored bread. And in Japan it is still used as a dye for coloring expensive articles.