Amanprana pays a visit to a saffron grower in Jiloca, Spain
Departure for saffron grower in Monreal del campo
At 9am on Thursday 1 November 2012 we had an appointment with José María in the car park of the El botero bar and hostel in Monreal del Campo, not far from his saffron field. Monreal del Campo is situated halfway between Madrid and Barcelona and halfway between Valencia and Zaragoza.
Explanation as to the name Azafran de Jiloca
On the way I discovered where the name Azafrán de Jiloca had originated. The Jiloca is a branch of the Ebro River and flows through Monreal del Campo.
The saffron harvest
José María's two sons and wife were already in the field. During the busiest days of the harvest, they start work at 7am. They have to start that early so they can pick all the open flowers before midday. The quality of the saffron depends, in particular, on the shortest possible harvest process. The day the flowers are picked, the pistils must also be carefully removed from every flower and dried. When we arrive in the field two extra wicker baskets are waiting for us; my friend Lander and I can join in! But first José María explains the daily schedule to us: In the morning we would all pick flowers together in the field. Only the open flowers are carefully handpicked. The flowers which are still closed are picked the following day … as long as they are open that is. The whole family stands one alongside the other in a horizontal row; they walk the length of the field, carefully picking all the open flowers as they go. At the end of the row we go back once more to check we haven't missed any flowers. This is how the whole field is harvested.
When we put the wicker baskets full of saffron flowers in the car and we head off to José María's parents-in-law's home. They have a small area with a large window in their house and this is where they 'clean' the flowers. "It's really nice working with the sun flooding in through the window", they laugh. The three pistils are carefully removed from the flower. These pistils are joined together underneath. The whole family looks carefully to make sure there are no stamens in amongst the saffron!
Up until lunchtime we clean all the flowers we have picked in the company of José María, his wife and his son Alvaro. As we do so their son José Ramón dries the saffron pistils. This is done entirely by hand (see photos). The saffron is placed on a sort of sieve and held over a low flame (no more than 40°C) for 6 minutes to dry. A subtle saffron aroma is now penetrating our nostrils. When they are fresh the flowers or pistils don’t smell anything like saffron. Once the saffron has been dried, it still needs to be put aside to rest. At the end of the day all the saffron is placed in cardboard boxes and sent to their warehouse. The warehouse has a monitored constant temperature and degree of humidity. This is where the saffron remains in the boxes to rest, protected from light and humidity. The last of the moisture is absorbed in the box. Three months later this saffron is ready for sale. Resting after it has dried out and resting again in the boxes is very important because it gives the saffron a good aroma and taste.
Around 3pm we are finally off to eat in a lovely little restaurant in Monreal del Campo which is run by José María’s sister-in-law. Around 5pm the whole family goes back to work and Lander and I set off for Valencia. The next day José María will bring the pistil-free flowers back to the field to turn them into compost.
Hard work, but what could be better than being able to work with flowers?
Harvesting saffron is extremely labour intensive. You spend the whole day bent over in the field. Flowers are picked extremely carefully by hand. In order to obtain 1 g of saffron, you need to pick as many as 180 to 200 flowers, clean then, dry them and leave them to rest.
At the moment José María and his family harvest around two hectares of saffron.
When walking in the field, you do of course also have to make sure you don’t destroy any of the flowers. But the family gets a lot of enjoyment out of the work. Both José María’s parents and his parents in law, work ‘in saffron’. “There is nothing better than being able to spend the whole day working with flowers”, explains José María’s wife when she finally stops singing and humming. Her song: “La rosa del azafrán, es una flor elegante, que nace al salir el sol, y muere al caer la tarde.” (The saffron rose is an elegant flower which is born as the sun rises and dies when night falls.)
They regularly eat saffron themselves: in paella, arroz con leche, soup etc. “This is why we are so happy and healthy!” they laugh. In Monreal del Campo people consciously choose organic: working organically according to the Slow Food principles to guarantee the exceptional quality of the saffron.
The saffron harvest depends on the weather
It was difficult to fix an exact date to see the field in bloom and the whole process of harvesting right down to the storage of the saffron. Everything depends on the weather and the flowers.
Normally the harvest begins around 20 October and lasts until around 10 November, but… this can vary, depending on the weather throughout the year and the weather during the harvest period. On the last weekend of October 2012 the beautiful weather meant an unexpectedly large number of flowers were open. As a consequence there were fewer flowers on 1 November.
Keeping mice away with organic saffron
In order to make sure the mice don't eat the flowers and bulbs, an organic saffron farmer doesn't use poison like other farmers do. We use a sort of cauldron, which is filled with damp straw. The straw is lit and the cauldron is placed in a pipe in the entrance to the mouse hole. The mice flee or else die from the smoke.
Report by Klaartje Mertens
- Slow Food Saffron of the very best quality (ISO 1), Jiloca, Spain
- With coconut blossom sugar (Low GI of 35)
- Adds colour, flavour and aroma to your dishes