Friday, January 9, 2015

Red gold on rocky hills: harvesting saffron in Provence

I was out walking the pups (in addition to our own, we were taking care of our youngest son's dog) around nine one morning last week. Having just barked their heads off at a plumber getting out of his truck, they were strutting down the street (all eighteen pounds of chihuaha-terrier mix, combined), one with his ears perked up, the other one with her ears flapping down, both tails up in the air, clearly very pleased with themselves, when I experienced one of these minutes when Time seems to coalesce and hang in the air like an all-encompassing drop of luminous peace. The sky was a deep blue, the sun bright, far away the highway rumbled, birds were tweeting somewhere, the cool air smelled of pine and eucalyptus, I felt that if I reached out, I might actually touch life itself and it would be almost gel-like because there was no flux, only the present. A perfect minute. I stopped walking, awed. Then the dogs started sniffing and panting, pulling towards a red squirrel on a low limb, the world resumed its spinning. Still I had had that moment and I filed it away in my box of wonder. Albeit a very different, experience, our visit to a saffron farm back in the fall when we were in Marseille also felt suspended in time. Maybe it was the setting...
Or the twenty-minute walk up the fragrant hills from Lascours, the sleepy village where we had parked the car...

Maybe it was the beloved friends we were with and the good-natured group of locals we had joined for the occasion...
Maybe it was Delphine Douet, the owner of the saffron farm, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. Maybe it was the weather, maybe the colors, maybe the aromas... Maybe a combination of all this. In any case, a morning so perfect that it could only foster hope and healing.
I didn't know much about saffron before visiting the farm. I knew I loved its smell and taste, I knew it was the most expensive spice in the world and I knew it came from a specific variety of crocus. Beyond that, not a clue. I suspect such is the case with most visitors because the first thing Delphine did was sit us down at a long table on a restanque (narrow terrace where the crocuses are cultivated) and tell us everything we could possibly want to know about the precious or rouge (red gold) as saffron is sometimes called.
Although I enjoyed hearing about the role of saffron in history, its place in religious rituals, its medicinal benefits, its cosmetic uses, its dyeing properties, its culinary assets, etc. I am not going to overload you with this info because you can easily find it on the web. If you read French, a good place to start would be 13'Or Rouge, Delphine's own website or this report she referred me to. For English-speakers, there is Wikipedia and other resources including this page of gardening tips in case you decide you grow your own (which I'd like to try).
What mostly got my attention was the fact that while the world produces about two hundred tons a year, four hundred tons are actually traded, meaning that not all that is labeled saffron is the real thing. As explained in this article (in French), some producers may substitute marigold, safflower, arnica, corn silk, seaweed, etc. or use dyes. They may make saffron threads heavier by coating them with sugar, oil, honey and mineral powders.
Others may include some non-aromatic parts of the plant itself. The stigma is the red thread which, once dehydrated, becomes the spice. The style is its yellow "foot." Cheaper brands often contains both stigmas and styles. Delphine explained that she always has her harvest helpers (us on that particular day) gather the stigmas in red bowls so that she can see at a glance whether or not they mistakenly included any of the yellow styles. Bowls containing yellow specks do not pass muster. To make her point, she passed around two little bottles, the first one containing dehydrated stigmas, the second one containing dehydrated styles, and invited us to uncork them and smell. The red stigmas smelled divine. The yellow styles smelled like old hay. In other words when you buy saffron that's both red and yellow, you are not getting one hundred percent pure saffron.
I normally get my saffron from Trader Joe's. When I got back home from France, I checked the bottle I had in my spice drawer.
Here is what TJ's saffron looks like on a red plate.
To be compared with the saffron in one of our bowls (prior to Delphine's inspection)...
Knowing what I know now, I understand why TJ's saffron is more affordable than others. I checked out saffron at Costco too. At first glance, it looks pretty much the same as TJ's and I assume it smells and tastes about the same as well. Less fragrant and aromatic that the one in Provence but a reasonable alternative although you will have to use it in bigger amounts to achieve comparable results.
One trick to find out whether the saffron you bought has been dyed is to rub some threads (or powder) between two wet fingers. Your fingers should turn yellow. If they turn red, dye has been used. Delphine advises against buying saffron powder because it is often adulterated.
The saffron-producing crocus is crocus sativus. The bulbs are buried in the summer for a fall harvest. They multiply underground during winter and spring then go dormant. Early summer is a good time to deter them, so that the cycle can resume. Dependent on man's help for reproduction, the crocus has been grown that way for five thousand years. To harvest the saffron, one pinches the flower at its base and snips it off (pulling would damage the bulb). When all the flowers have been harvested, the stigmas are pulled out. There are three stigmas per flower.

Delphine demonstrating where to cut off the style
We were directed to a pile of little straw baskets...
...and off we went, the two youngest (age nine and fifteen) racing ahead and filling their baskets in record time. When the whole restanque had been plucked over and all the stigmas pulled out, Delphine weighed the contents of our combined harvest: twelve grams.
Well, it was twelve grams when she first weighed it but by the time I took the picture (like two or three minutes later), desiccation had set in and the weight was already down by one centigram. Just so you know, one hundred grams of fresh stigmas yield 20 g of dry saffron. For one kilogram of saffron, you need the stigmas of about one hundred and sixty thousand flowers.
Once enough stigmas have been collected, they are dehydrated for twenty minutes at 140-158°F/60-70°C, then stored in tightly closed containers away from any light source.
To maximize aroma and flavor, saffron must be rehydrated before use, preferably for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. A baker might want to soak it in the water to be mixed with the flour.
Delphine took out various saffron-infused products (jams, marmalades, honey, tea) to taste with bread from Dame Farine, the lovely Marseille bakery we had just visited. A match made in heaven!
Spent crocus flowers...
If you ever are in the Marseille area in early fall and would like to visit the farm, you may want to contact Delphine at +33 6 86 22 16 88 and put your name on the list for a group tour. She speaks English. Outside harvest season, she also organizes saffron-themed breakfasts at regular intervals.


  1. MC,
    Very interesting information about saffron. I use it in holiday baking and use it sparingly due to the expense. Amazing that people first discovered this as a spice. I always associate crocuses with Spring. They are the first flowers to poke through the cold Spring ground here. Messengers that more flowers will follow shortly and our days will warm up and we all will be blessed by the sun's light that will bring forth new life with its powerful rays. A reminder that we are taken care of by the sun- a star that shines so far, far away.
    Thanks for sharing your discoveries here!
    I am saddened to read in the news what has been happening in your beloved homeland. I hope that your friends and family were not directly impacted by the loss of a loved one though I know they are all impacted by the reverberations of the senseless brutality.
    Take Care,

  2. Beautiful post, MC!

    I am the happy owner of quite a bit of saffron brought to me from Saudi Arabia by a friend who goes there in scientific missions, which personally I think is a little crazy and borderline dangerous. I liked that you mentioned how to test the quality of saffron by rubbing the stems.

    So many horrible things happening in the world, sitting here reading your post with a cup of chamomile tea seems like heaven....

  3. Dear MC, what spectacular countryside. I don't think I've ever seen crocus flowers so beautiful.
    How lovely to enjoy the flavor of saffron and that lovely bread, in such a setting.
    :^) breadsong



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