Saf­fron, ru­ral Spain's cri­sis-beat­ing spice

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

On the arid, wind-swept plateau of cen­tral Spain, saf­fron pro­duc­ers are reap­ing the ben­e­fits of a re­turn to fa­vor of the pre­cious spice in­tro­duced by Arabs in the Mid­dle Ages. Af­ter a lull in pro­duc­tion due to the high cost of grow­ing saf­fron in Spain, farm­ers are now back in busi­ness as cus­tomers have started seek­ing qual­ity over lower prices. Sit­ting around three long ta­bles at the Mo­lineta com­pany in Mi­naya, a 1,600strong vil­lage 200 kilo­me­ters (124 miles) south­east of Madrid, el­derly ladies ex­tract bright red stig­mas from vi­o­let saf­fron cro­cuses that will sub­se­quently be dried and sold off. Ev­ery day dur­ing the au­tumn har­vest, Se­gunda Gas­con, 78, black­ens her fin­gers as she works the fra­grant petals, a ges­ture she has prac­ticed again and again since 1964 when she was given a small batch of seedlings for her wed­ding.

She is part of a group of around 50 peo­ple-many of them re­tired-who are paid to help out at this time of year in the small vil­lage of the Castilla-La Man­cha re­gion. Nearby Dolores Navarro, 83, sings a folk song as she works: "The saf­fron rose is a fra­grant flower, that grows at sun­rise and dies at sun­set." She re­mem­bers the men who would come to the vil­lage in the 1960s to buy the spice "at a high price." All by hand

But then came the mod­ern­iza­tion of agri­cul­ture, which led to a drop in many food prices. Saf­fron though, which re­lies on in­ten­sive man­ual la­bor, re­mained ex­pen­sive and Span­ish pro­duc­ers were un­able to keep up. From more than 100 tons a year at the start of the 20th cen­tury, Span­ish pro­duc­tion dropped over the decades to reach just 1.9 tons in 2014, the last of­fi­cial fig­ure. By com­par­i­son Iran-where the work­force is cheaper and the se­lec­tion of stig­mas less strict-says 93 per­cent of world­wide saf­fron pro­duc­tion came from the coun­try in 2015, at 350 tons.

Spain, Morocco and Kash­mir shared what was left. "In the 1980s, saf­fron was ru­inous," says Mo­lineta founder Juan An­to­nio Or­tiz, a 66-year-old farmer. Stand­ing by his field, he keeps an eye on the bas­ket-car­ry­ing Bul­gar­ian, Sene­galese and Malian day la­bor­ers, who have been pick­ing still-closed flow­ers since day­break and are paid 5.20 eu­ros a kilo. Un­like oth­ers, Or­tiz de­cided not to aban­don his pre­cious flow­ers, and it even­tu­ally paid off.

His 10 hectares (25 acres) of saf­fron now earn his fam­ily "around 500 eu­ros per kilo," which comes to around 50,000 eu­ros a year. "I held on be­cause I al­ways liked grow­ing this," he said. "I was barely walk­ing and I was al­ready in the saf­fron plots with my mother pick­ing the flow­ers."

At the turn of the cen­tury, Or­tiz and his wife Maria Angeles bet on qual­ity to broaden their pro­duc­tion, which now comes com­plete with a pro­tected des­ig­na­tion of ori­gin (PDO) la­bel rec­og­nized by the Euro­pean Union. They sell their saf­fron to dis­trib­u­tors from Spain, the United States, Euro­pean coun­tries and even the United Arab Emirates. 'Threads of gold'

Once Maria Angeles has sorted through the stig­mas with tweez­ers, and dried them on a silk can­vas above a small fire, she puts them in small plas­tic bags to wait for ex­perts who con­trol their com­po­si­tion to give them their PDO. They will then be able to sell the saf­fron threads with their dis­tinc­tive aroma. The price? Four eu­ros per gram. Span­ish saf­fron is "among the best of any­where," says Pat Hes­lop-Har­ri­son, pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­tural bi­ol­ogy at Bri­tain's Leicester Uni­ver­sity. "Castilla-La Man­cha has the per­fect con­di­tions," he adds, point­ing to "the types of soil, cli­mate, how it is har­vested and dried."

That fact has not gone un­no­ticed among Spain's le­gion of chefs. "In Spain, we treat it as if it were threads of gold," says Daniel Lasa, chef at Spain's Miche­lin-starred Mu­garitz res­tau­rant. "La Man­cha's saf­fron is much clearer, less bit­ter" than that of Iran, he adds. He prefers us­ing the spice for soups and gelatines, and to ac­com­pany seafood. In the re­gion around Mi­naya, Spain's dev­as­tat­ing eco­nomic cri­sis, which erupted in 2008, pushed many to re­turn to grow­ing what is known as "red gold." There are now 267 pro­duc­ers of saf­fron with the PDO la­bel alone in Spain. Just 100 kilo­me­ters away in Toledo prov­ince where un­em­ploy­ment is sky-high, small-scale pro­duc­ers are on the rise, group­ing them­selves into co­op­er­a­tives. And in Mi­naya, the Or­tiz fam­ily is no longer alone. An­to­nio Gar­cia Filoso, a 36-year-old farmer, started plant­ing saf­fron two years ago, and pro­duced three kilo­grams last year.

A har­vester, paid in a job-by-job ba­sis, picks saf­fron flow­ers.

A saf­fron cleaner picks the stig­mas of a saf­fron flower.

A bas­ket full of saf­fron flow­ers lies on the ground of one of the Mo­lineta de Mi­naya saf­fron com­pany’s plots in Mi­naya.

Har­vesters, paid in a job-by-job ba­sis, pick saf­fron flow­ers at one of Mo­lineta de Mi­naya saf­fron com­pany’s plots in Mi­naya. — AFP pho­tos

Mo­lineta de Mi­naya saf­fron com­pany own­ers Mari Angeles Ser­rano (left) and Jose An­to­nio Or­tiz pose hold­ing a bas­ket full of bloomed saf­fron bulbs out­side their com­pany’s ware­house.

Saf­fron clean­ers work at Mo­lineta de Mi­naya com­pany’s ware­house.

Saf­fron stig­mas are poured over a sieve used to dry them.

A har­vester pulls up a saf­fron flower from its root.

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