Praised by Virgil and Homer, adopted as a seductive beauty secret by Cleopatra, saffron dates back some 4,000 years, as ancient as civilization itself. Brought to Europe from Asia Minor during the Crusades in the Middle Ages, the versatile aromatic has been celebrated over the centuries as a fragrance, a dye, a spice, and a medicinal treatment.
France was once a major producer, supplying most of Europe until the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century siphoned off the workforce necessary for its labor-intensive cultivation. Now, saffron plantations, called safraniers, are making a comeback in France. During the past ten years, a burgeoning number of independent boutique French safraniers have revived the culture of saffron as a succulent gourmet ingredient of French gastronomy.
Renowned as red gold, saffron is derived from the crimson stigma of the purple crocus sativus, a bulb of the iris family. As luxurious as it is legendary, this couture product must be hand-planted, hand-picked and hand-trimmed, sending its price soaring many times higher than those of the most expensive truffles or caviar. The saving grace: Each flower bears three flavor-enhancing filaments and just a few of these red gold saffron threads can transform a dish.
Safraniers are popping up in central France as well as Brittany, Provence, and even in the north near Lille. The Loire Valley, however, seems especially conducive to the current saffron propagation.
In the little village of Limeray, near Amboise, former pharmacist Dominique Blanchard decided to experiment with raising saffron when she found it increasingly difficult to reconcile her profession with looking after four children. “I started in 2009 by planting very few bulbs in a small field,” she explains. Her first attempt produced only a few grams because some bulbs were planted too deeply and flowered underground.
“I joined the Association des Safraniers de Touraine. We are thirty in number and mostly women from my age, 45, up,” she continues. “My first lesson was that to get one gram of saffron, you need 150 to 200 flowers. And you need patience.”
Planting takes place from July through August. The ground is prepared by plowing or turning over the soil. Furrows are then hoed, whereupon Blanchard places the bulbs in shallow holes, close to one another. “The ideal is to have a mix of acidic and chalky soil,” she says, “but the most important is to have it well-drained.”
After the autumn rains, the crocuses burst into bloom from late September through October. “The entire month of October is devoted to the harvest,” she says. “At its height, we are in the fields hand-picking every bloom from 8 a.m. to noon and beyond.” The purple flowers are brought indoors and spread on a large table for the emondage, the hand clipping of the saffron filaments, which is done the same day.
Filaments are dried on trays set over hot air in dehumidifiers or special ovens. Then they are sealed in airtight containers (although Blanchard leaves her glass jars slightly open) and stored in a dark place for a two-month ripening. Afterward, the filaments retain their taste for several years.
Meanwhile, left underground for three years, the bulbs multiply, thereby producing more flowers. From this bounty, Blanchard began making saffron-flavored products like fruit jellies and jams (some destined to accompany foie gras, terrines, or goat cheeses), teas, juices, syrups and cordials, which she sells in the Loire’s open markets along with the saffron filaments. Before adding saffron to a recipe, she warns it’s important to “wake up” the filaments in an infusion of water, milk, cream, alcohol, cordial or juice.
Meanwhile, farther up the Loire Valley at Mesland, saffron-producer Samuel Pugnère has a slightly different philosophy. A former air-conditioning engineer, he wanted to work closer to nature and indulge his passion for cuisine. Three years ago, he planted his first crop of 3,000 bulbs. It worked. Expanding his safraniere, he planted 30,000 bulbs last summer. “The grand adventure,” he calls it.
“I don’t believe in plowing or working the soil,” he says. “I respect the order of the ergonomic layers with the humus on top. And I plant my bulbs deeper, between July 15 through August.”
Pugnère’s pistil-trimming method is meticulous. “My wife and I open the flower with our hands and clip the part of the pistil that is no longer red with small scissors without touching it.”
Pugnère contends, “French saffron is known to be the best in the world. Terroir (soil) is important, and the saffron of the Loire Valley has an especially refined and subtle quality. I find it is best used during the first year after the harvest. If you let it age two or three years, it becomes as spicy as Moroccan or Spanish saffron.”
His recipe for a roast chicken for six calls for infusing 30 filaments of saffron in crème fraîche overnight. Unlike tarragon or rosemary, cooked with the chicken, the saffron-infused cream is warmed up with the roasting bits and juices in the pan to make a sauce. And for Valentine’s Day, he advises, “Take a bottle of good red or white wine, add in one-tenth of a saffron gram (about 45 filaments) the night before, and the wine becomes aphrodisiac.”
To give visitors something to see in the fields before the autumn flowering, he plants his crocus in a spiral design interspersed with rows of summer-blooming yellow sunflowers and red and blue linum flowers. On a visit, one discovers the quality of the saffron in a tasting: pastries, macaroons, sugar cookies, meringues, and saffron-infused drinks. His range of “saffronized” offerings includes fruit and citrus jams, fig chutney, and strong Dijon mustard mixed with honey and saffron and the syrup.
The two growers agree the dazzling price of saffron is luring more people into growing it. “But it’s not like winning the lottery yet,” says Pugnère. Blanchard concurs. “Although it is the most expensive spice in the world, it’s a lot of work and not that much money,” she says. “It becomes a passion.”
This story appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of MILIEU. To purchase this issue in print, visit the MILIEU Newsstand. To purchase in digital format, visit zinio.com.
WRITTEN BY JEAN BOND RAFFERTY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CLIVE NICHOLS