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