Thursday 8 October 2009

Harvesting Saffron

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.

Freshly picked saffron flowers in the foreground,
waiting to have their stigmas removed
Monsieur Mériguet took up saffron growing when he retired as a decorator and restorer specialising in paint effects. He has become a considerable expert in all aspects of saffron's history, cultivation and culinary uses. (By his own admission, he knows much less about saffron as a dyestuff.) He has been instrumental in the revival of the Foire au Safran in Preuilly. After giving me a potted history of saffron (the bulbs arrived in France brought by the Romans or Greeks to the port of La Rochelle, then came up the big rivers into the Touraine, where it was a major crop in the later Middle Ages, used right up to modern times for all sorts of things from a gum-salve for teething infants to a stain used in microscopy, very expensive, very labour intensive to produce) I was then invited back the next day to go and look at the harvest.

Harvesting saffron flowers
The next morning Monsieur Mériguet drove us out of town a short way, to an old farmhouse surrounded by rows of young oak trees. The oaks are connected to Monsieur Mériguet's other passion – truffles. The saffron is grown in bands between the rows of oaks.

Me and Madame Mériguet pulling stigmas off flowers
The soil is lightly cultivated (no more than harrowed or scarified) for the saffron. Monsieur Mériguet explained that you need soil that is argile-calcaire (clay-chalk) and the bulbs must be planted quite deeply – at least 15cm. This is because the stigma is formed in the tube of the flower, which comes up directly from the bulb - the longer the tube, the more saffron you get. They need to be harvested in the morning, as by mid-afternoon they are wilting. The flowers are carefully picked by hand into a basket designed for the task. It has sloping sides that turn back to partially cover the basket. This is because the flowers are so light that the slightest breeze would blow them out of a conventional basket.

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).

Saffron from around the world
– only the Spanish stuff came anywhere
near the local saffron for quality.
With five of us dismembering flowers, the job was done in no time, and we were offered an apératif. This turned out to be a crémant (champagne style wine) from their own vineyard. We were given another little sachet of saffron strands, and now I can't wait for our own saffron, down at the potager, to produce some flowers (they are just poking their noses above ground after the recent rain).



Ken Broadhurst said...

That's very interesting, Susan. I don't know if I've ever been able to detect the flavor of saffron. Thanks too for the bulbs. It seems like we might have the right kind of soil for them here.

My word verification word is "scons" -- do you think you can use those with saffron?

The Beaver said...


Have you ever tried the saffron from Iran? I find that they are as good as the one from Spain.

Jenny said...

oh, my. This post today was wonderful. I love info/insight like this. What a gift to learn and see this process vicariously through your blog. I have never wanted saffron like I do now that I can appreciate its journey to the table. Thank you Susan.

Susan in Lille said...

This is so interesting! I never knew anything about saffron other than it's expensive. I had no idea the flowers were so pretty. It's also easy to see why it is such a costly spice. Thanks for the tip of looking for the yellow stems!

NickL said...

I always thought saffron came from the purple crocusses that flower in spring, hence the event in April and had no idea it wa an autumncrop. We must plant some. You live and learn reading your blog!
Thanks, Nick

Jean said...

The flowers are so beautiful, too.
Brilliant post, Susan.

Ken Broadhurst said...

We have two kinds of saffron in our spice cabinet. I went and opened them, to smell them. There is definitely a musty aroma there. Now I have to cook with some of it and see what it tastes like.

I used to think I never had really detected the flavor of bay leaves. Then we moved to Saint-Aignan and live in a house with a bay tree in the back garden. One day I boiled two or three leaves in plain water just to appreciate the aroma. Very nice.

The Beaver said...


To really catch the aroma of the saffron, you have to just warm ( heat them) for a min or two in a pan over low heat and then add a couple of Tsp of water before adding it to any recipe. That's when you appreciate it :- in your recipes.

Susan said...

Ken: Beaver is right. Saffron takes a little time, warmth and liquid to release its flavour if you are only using a small quantity. I was lucky enough to get to stick my nose into a large jar of the stuff and it was a revelation - nearly knocks you flat.

Bay leaves are one of my favourite spices - warm and, well, spicy. They combine fantastically well with juniper berries.

Beaver: I've never personally used Iranian, but the Mériguet's had some. Based on what they told me, I would say it is medium quality - there's quite a lot of yellow style included, but it's a lot better than the Egyptian and Corsican, which looked as though it came from a completely different type of plant!

Nick: The Foire au Safran is in February, not April.

Jean: Bulbs can be purchased from the Mériguet's in Place des Halles, Preuilly-sur-Claise, on the first Saturday in July. Or if my bulbs multiply like they did last year I'll give you some.

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