On Monday evening as I was on my way down to the orchard, Monsieur Q waylaid me, instructing me to wait, as he had something for me. He disappeared back into his house and returned with a little sachet of dried saffron strands. He said that the saffron was blooming right now, and if I wanted to see it I needed to get round to the Mériguet's place that day or the next.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I went round there immediately. Madame Mériguet was standing at the front gate waiting for me, so I assume Monsieur Q had telephoned her to let her know. They had just finished taking the gorgeous orange-red stigmas from the flowers that had been picked that morning, and had it laid out on kitchen paper towel placed on their mantelpiece. It's left there for about a day to dry out, then transferred to jars to cure for some months. Saffron's distinctive aroma takes some time to develop, and the difference between this year's harvest and last year's was very marked. The fresh stuff is mildly scented, and slightly musty. Good quality aged saffron has an undescribable aroma, powerful, rather sharp and medicinal. One of the most economical but tasty ways the Mériguet's use it is to liven up supermarket-bought sablés (butter biscuits, a bit like shortbread). They layer saffron and biscuits in a tin and allow the biscuits to absorb the flavour and scent of the saffron. The biscuits are ready after a few days, and the saffron can be used in other dishes.
waiting to have their stigmas removed
Once picked, the basket of flowers was taken back to the house and we sat around the table pulling off the precious stigmas and discarding the lovely purple flowers. Madame Mériguet demonstrated the technique, which is to gently pull all three stigmas together at the tips with one hand, whilst neatly nipping them off just before they join to form the style with the other hand. It is important to only take the deep red part of the stigma, as the yellowy part at the base does not have a good flavour. An easy way of judging the quality of saffron in a shop is to check how much yellow there is on the base of the strands. The Mériguet's warned us that many producers include all the yellow stigma bases and style, as it adds bulk. They also said that saffron powder is never the real thing (turmeric is the usual substitute).
– only the Spanish stuff came anywhere
near the local saffron for quality.