Sowing Culinary Tradition in the Saffron Fields of La Mancha
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
In the Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha, Don Quijote’s land of undulating fields and iconic windmills, lie rows upon rows of bright lilac flowers – crocus sativus. The crimson centres of these flowers are so precious, that one ounce of them can cost more than its weight in gold.
This is saffron, one of Spain’s most defining flavours, famously used in paella. The spice itself, fiery red in colour, comes from the stigmas of the crocus flower. Each flower produces only three stigmas, just three strands of saffron that must be harvested by hand.
As a spice saffron produces a strong and pungent flavour, which tastes earthy, floral and sweet all at the same time. It’s complexity makes it suited to both sweet and savoury dishes. Equally important is saffron’s role as a colourant, everything it touches takes on rich, warming golden hue that matches the spice’s signature aroma. In Spanish cuisine saffron is most recognizably used in paella where it lends the rice a jewel-like amber tone.
Saffron has historically been considered one of the world’s most expensive spices. First recorded in the 7th century BC, the flower is native to the Middle East. Renowned food stylist Caz Hildebrand has traced saffron’s possible origins to Persia but notes that it has a long and broad history. In her book, The Grammar of Spice, she writes, “...saffron is praised in the Bible, Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s poems, Alexander the Great reportedly used it in baths to cure battle wounds.”
First cultivated in Greece, saffron shaped ancient economies and trade across the region. Saffron was first brought to Spain as the Umayyad Caliphate expanded its rule into the Iberian Peninsula via North Africa in the 8th century. The caliphate maintained rule over the modern-day Spain for over six centuries and saffron was one of the many culinary imports to the region that became a staple of Spanish cuisine.Contemporary cultivation takes place in the ‘gold belt’ which stretches across the Mediterranean and the Middle East and boasts Spain as one of its key producers.
Since the 1700s, the Castilla-La Mancha region of central Spain has become the capital of the country’s saffron production. This is primarily because the saffron crocuses have adapted to the high altitude of the mountainous terrain and the area’s dramatic climate of extreme hot summers and cold wet winters. Saffron from this region is praised for its intense colouring, fragrant aroma and powerful flavour and was granted Protected Designation of Origin (D.O.P) status in 1995. It is the only spice to gain such distinction in Spain.
Saffron is still considered a one of the most precious and expensive of ingredients; but what does this mean and what role does saffron play in the contemporary food world?
Carlos Fernández, a saffron producer and president of the Designation of Origin of Saffron of Castilla-La Mancha, says “Saffron from Castilla-La Mancha has characteristics that range from a bright red colour, and intense floral and honey aroma to a somewhat bitter taste, that make it unmistakeable.”
The price of saffron comes not only from the low yield of each crocus, its cultivation also very labor intensive. “The first step is to select a piece of land which is appropriate for the cultivation of saffron. We plant the bulbs during the months of August and September and that first year, we will already have buds in October and November, although flowering will not be very abundant,‘ Fernández explains.
Each bulb blooms annually and the saffron from each flower is extracted for a period of three years. After the third flowering, the bulb is extracted from the ground for replanting, cleaning and then transferred to a different plot. The initial plot of land must then be allowed to rest for a further six years before more saffron can be planted there again. This is because the saffron crocuses need well-draining soil, which is in organic matter. Over time, the organic matter in the soil decreases, leading to a lower quality of saffron flowers, affecting both the taste and the colour.
“It’s hard work, harvesting saffron flowers. Everything is done by hand. We are bent down all day. Then, later we sit down for hours to extract each individual saffron strand. Our backs hurt a lot,” says Fernández. “We only sleep two to three hours per night, during the twenty days that the saffron harvest season lasts. This is because the process is entirely artisanal”.
The flowers must be collected very early in the morning before they fully open and could be contaminated by dirt, dust, insects or pollen. Once they have been picked, the extraction takes place, and then the strands are toasted so that the saffron doesn’t degrade. It takes around 150 flowers – which equals around 500 strands - to produce just one gram of saffron. This sheer number of strands, combined with the hard physical and manual labour to harvest them explains why saffron has become so precious and is so expensive.
The methods of harvesting, peeling and toasting in Castilla-La Mancha are different to other saffron regions in the world and have been passed down from generation to generation. There very powerful traditional and cultural connotations associated with saffron, from songs and literature to festival throughout Spain. Its symbolic value can be seen in famous zarzuelas (a traditional lyrical drama like an opera) such as La Rosa del Azafrán.
The saffron harvest is celebrated by people from Castilla-La Mancha at the Saffron Rose Festival is held in the town of Consuegra. The festival is held at the end of October each year and highlights the region’s gastronomy, crafts, history and folklore, much of which of course involves the spice itself. There’s a saffron pruning competition and a saffron cooking contest, along with folkloric music, dancing and parades.
But while Castilla-La Mancha may be where most of the saffron is grown in Spain, the region’s soil seeds into the country’s overall culinary culture through the spice. Besides paella, many of Spain’s hearty stews use saffron for both colour and flavour, including cocido Madrileño from Madrid, fabada Asturiana from Austrias or suquet de peix, a fish stew from Catalonia. Home cooks and chefs from around the country find saffron to be an integral ingredient in the Spanish kitchen, not just for flavouring, but also because of its intense warming colour.
Erika Chalker, who lives in Andalusia says “it makes a regular appearance in the recipes of my Spanish partner’s family. Onion, red pepper, tomato and saffron is a standard flavour base for many ‘spoon dishes’, especially vegetable and chickpea or lentil combinations.”
Margaret Castor, a keen cook from Madrid says she uses it in mainly in rice dishes, soups and potato stews, while home cook Arantxa Lamas de Asla says that it goes well with fish recipes: “I also use it in mayonnaise, any recipe with potatoes, with squid, artichokes and cauliflower.”
Carmen Valesco Cortes tells me she mainly uses it in North African-style dishes, a culinary tradition stems from when Spain was ruled by the Nasrid dynasty. But these dishes remain popular in Spain today, particularly in Andalusia. These include dishes such as spinach and chickpeas, salt crust-baked fish or rabbit and chicken stuffed with pine nuts and raisins or dates.
In some dishes the spice is lightly toasted with oil at the beginning of the cooking process to lend a toasted bitterness that give savoury flavours a bit of an edge. But when the saffron is ground and bloomed in warm water, the spice’s delicate honey flavours take charge making it perfect for sweet dishes. Miguel Rosa from Barceloa notes that it is commonly used in a custards and in lots of pastries, mostly mixed with chocolate. “I highly recommend crushing some strands and adding it to hot chocolate,” Fernández says.
Many chefs and home cooks warn about imitation varieties – cheap alternatives which are sold in supermarkets as paella seasoning and mostly just contain E numbers and colourings such as tartrazine. While these are certainly cheaper, you have to use a lot more to get a strong colour and the flavour just doesn’t compare. With real saffron, you really only have to use around three strands.
This is precisely why saffron producer Fernández doesn’t think saffron is actually expensive at all. He explains that the spice is thought of as expensive because it’s always spoken about in macro terms of kilos. He explains that a family of four in Spain might only consume 10 or 15 grams of saffron per year, which would cost around 100 euros.
The story of saffron is anchored in the soil it grows and the people that crave it’s unique flavour. The qualities of aroma, flavour and colour that saffron is prized for are a result of the knowledge, time and labour required to produce the spice. Whether you think it is expensive or not, quality saffron is priceless to the people who value it as part of their culinary identity.
Esme Fox is a food and travel journalist who grew up in the Philippines and Uganda. Today, she is based in and specialises in writing about Spain. She has contributed to publications such as Lonely Planet, The Telegraph, Culture Trip, Olive Magazine, and loveFood. She also runs a newsletter - The B Word - all about her adopted city of Barcelona. www.esmefox.com