SAF­FRON

How the golden har­vest has been re­vived in France, and where to en­joy it best.

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Saf­fron is per­haps the most al­lur­ing of all the ex­otic spices that find their way into French haute cui­sine. Even in tiny quan­ti­ties, it im­parts an evoca­tive golden hue to dishes; ac­com­pa­nied by flavours that are so sub­tle, they can be a chal­lenge to put into words. Some talk of a del­i­cate sweet­ness, while oth­ers find an at­trac­tively bit­ter tang; or honey and fresh flow­ers, with un­der­tones of freshly picked girolle mush­rooms.

Nick­named l’or rouge – or red gold – a sin­gle gram of top French saf­fron is worth be­tween €30 and €40; so it is, quite lit­er­ally, worth more than its weight in the pre­cious metal. Un­like that other jewel of the French kitchen, the truf­fle, saf­fron is not dif­fi­cult to grow. Rather, its value is de­rived from the in­ten­sive labour re­quired in its prepa­ra­tion: as many as 200,000 flow­ers must be hand-har­vested in Oc­to­ber, and their tiny crim­son, fil­a­ment-like pis­tils col­lected and care­fully dried, to make a sin­gle kilo­gram of saf­fron.

Saf­fron comes from a breed of cro­cus known as Cro­cus sativus, which is na­tive to south-west Asia, but was prob­a­bly first cul­ti­vated in An­cient Greece. In Greek mythol­ogy, the god Zeus is said to have laid his lovers on a bed of saf­fron, to stim­u­late their de­sires and in­crease his own viril­ity! Homer and Pliny the Elder were also fans of the spice, which has been praised since an­tiq­uity for its medic­i­nal prop­er­ties.

Saf­fron was first planted in France in the Mid­dle Ages, ar­riv­ing ei­ther from North Africa via Spain, or through Italy from the east­ern Mediter­ranean. Bulbs were planted in the Gâti­nais re­gion around the city of Or­léans, and in the an­cient province of Quercy, in south-west France, which be­came the dual cra­dles of French saf­fron pro­duc­tion. Saf­fron needs wa­ter to pro­duce flow­ers, but it likes to be planted in free-drain­ing soils, like loam, sand­stone or clay-lime­stone. Above all, it needs plenty of di­rect sun­light.

For more than 500 years, France was renowned for the qual­ity of its saf­fron. The small town of Boynes, in the Gâti­nais, was re­garded as the global cap­i­tal of saf­fron pro­duc­tion from the 16th to the 18th cen­turies, to­wards the end of which France pro­duced up to 30 tonnes of saf­fron per year. So much

of the coun­try’s har­vest was ex­ported that, in 1698, Louis XIV is­sued the first of many royal edicts to pro­tect and en­sure the qual­ity of l’or rouge français.

The in­dus­try’s de­cline be­gan with the Revo­lu­tion, which dec­i­mated much of France’s agri­cul­ture. The hard win­ters of 1880 and 1881 killed off swathes of cro­cus bulbs, which can­not re­sist re­ally low tem­per­a­tures. At the same time, the ex­o­dus of valu­able labour from coun­try to town left flow­ers un­picked; and as har­vests dwin­dled, newly de­vel­oped syn­thetic food colour­ings re­placed saf­fron in the bistros of Paris. The last com­mer­cial saf­fron field in France ceased pro­duc­tion in 1930.

Fifty years af­ter saf­fron’s lit­tle pur­ple flow­ers dis­ap­peared from the French land­scape, a group of farm­ers in the Gâti­nais de­cided to res­ur­rect the an­cient tra­di­tion. In 1987, they bought 50,000 saf­fron bulbs from the Kash­mir re­gion of north­ern In­dia – the plant’s sup­posed ori­gin – and be­gan to re­build the in­dus­try from scratch. Oth­ers have fol­lowed, re­plant­ing the saf­fron fields of Quercy, with other cen­tres in Li­mousin and Nor­mandy.

Es­cap­ing the rat race

Like many ar­ti­sanal cot­tage in­dus­tries in France, saf­fron pro­duc­tion has at­tracted city dwellers look­ing for a sec­ond ca­reer away from the urban rat race, in­clud­ing many who grow their saf­fron or­gan­i­cally. Although France is still a tiny pro­ducer in global terms, with only around 150 com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers, the qual­ity is so well recog­nised that it is now among the world’s lead­ing saf­fron ex­porters.

In the com­mune of Labur­gade, in Quercy, I spoke to Michel Alaux, a re­tired teacher who took up saf­fron grow­ing in 1997 to sup­ple­ment his pen­sion. He is one of 50 pro­duc­ers who make up the Safran du Quercy as­so­ci­a­tion – a close-knit group which sells the ma­jor­ity of its mem­bers’ har­vest to the lo­cal saf­fron co­op­er­a­tive, although each pro­ducer takes part of their own har­vest di­rectly to market.

In July and Au­gust, Michel can be found among other pro­duc­ers at the ar­ti­sanal mar­kets of Castel­nau-Mon­tratier and Montcuq; and on the third week­end of Oc­to­ber, to­wards

the end of the har­vest, he joins his col­leagues and the public for the an­nual saf­fron fes­ti­val in the vil­lage of Ca­jarc.

Ini­tially, Michel ad­mits, he was at­tracted as much by saf­fron’s fa­bled health ben­e­fits as he was by its flavours. Although pick­ing is en­er­getic, metic­u­lous work, Michel told me, saf­fron cro­cuses don’t re­quire much care through­out the year. “They might need a lit­tle wa­ter in Septem­ber in a dry year,” he adds, “but they mostly just get on with it on their own.”

As saf­fron pro­duc­tion has grown in France, the need for re­gions to dis­tin­guish their own pro­duce has emerged, with a pos­i­tive im­pact on qual­ity. The Safran de Quercy as­so­ci­a­tion is seek­ing IGP ( in­di­ca­tion géo­graphique pro­tégée) sta­tus for its saf­fron. “Saf­fron has a worse his­tory of fraud than any other agri­cul­tural prod­uct,” Michel ex­plained, es­pe­cially when it is sold as pow­der. “It can be cut with all sorts of other things.”

The pro­duc­ers of Safran de Quercy have im­posed strict rules, in­clud­ing the stip­u­la­tion that only the crim­son tips of the cro­cuses’ stig­mas are col­lected, as their yel­low bases (picked by many saf­fron farm­ers) can im­part as­trin­gent flavours.

Michel is hes­i­tant to dis­tin­guish the spe­cific virtues of saf­fron from Quercy, but chef Al­lan Du­plouich, from the nearby ‘ bistronomique’ restau­rant La Ta­ble de Haute-serre – which it­self has a small saf­fron plan­ta­tion – is more forth­right: “I find Quercy saf­fron more aro­matic, with softer flavours than that pro­duced else­where in France,” he said.

Al­lan is one of a grow­ing num­ber of French chefs who have suc­cumbed to the elu­sive charms of the spice, in­clud­ing Julien Poisot, head chef at Miche­lin­starred Château de Mer­cuès. Orig­i­nally from Bur­gundy, Julien had no spe­cial af­fec­tion for saf­fron be­fore ar­riv­ing in Quercy, but quickly dis­cov­ered its affin­ity with white fish and poul­try dishes. “For me, the se­cret’s in the in­ten­sity of the dose,” he ex­plained. “Too lit­tle and it goes un­no­ticed; too much and it can be over­pow­er­ing; but in the right con­cen­tra­tion, saf­fron re­ally is the most ele­gant of spices.”

ABOVE: Saf­fron farm­ing in the Eure-et-loir dé­parte­ment; BE­LOW LEFT: Honey bees for­ag­ing on cro­cus plants

ABOVE: Saf­fron on dis­play at the an­nual fes­ti­val held in Ca­jarc in the Lot dé­parte­ment

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