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Just Mad about Saffron: La Mancha, Spain

Just Mad about Saffron: La Mancha, Spain
Image: Turespana
The world’s costliest spice has historically been a root of avarice, but it may now hold the key to mellowing the opiate trade in Afghanistan, Rob Train investigates.

It costs upwards of $3,000 a kilogram; It triggered a classist conflict; A European remit was introduced as a consequence of its worth, stating that purveyors of an adulterated, watered-down version would face death by fire - a decree Henry VIII, a keen imbiber, was only too disposed to carry out. Cleopatra used it as a cosmetic and bathed in it, a town in England takes its name from it, and it was once believed to be a cure for the plague - although conversely if taken in sufficiently large quantities it can be fatal.

Saffron has long been one of the most expensive substances on earth, and throughout history its culinary, medicinal and political value has been coveted equally by nations and individuals. It was first recorded in history by the Assyrians, and first cultivated en masse by the ancient Greeks. The Moors, whose influence during the 8th century spread through Iberia and into southern France, are believed to have introduced the saffron crocus into central and southern Spain. They called the spice za’ afran. More than a millennium later, the region of Castilla La-Mancha in the parched interior of the Spainsh peninsula is widely credited with producing the finest saffron on the planet.

From an historical high of around 50 tons a year in the 1970s, output in Castilla La-Mancha today is a meagre one ton a year, produced by just over 400 smallholders across the region. Only around half of this is exported, meaning that to lay hands on genuine Manchegan saffron – the only variety to carry a denomination of origin certificate – is not a simple task. Worldwide production, though, stands at just 300 tons a year. Saffron is grown and harvested from east to west across a temperate belt of nations, with Iran and Spain the two largest contributors; the latter exports a further 100 tons of non-Manchegan saffron a year.

Saffron’s astronomical price is tempered by the painstaking process necessary to produce just a small quantity: between 200,000 and 250,000 plants are required for a single kilogram, and the stigmas of the saffron crocus must be picked by hand on the day that they bloom and dried immediately. The eye-watering prospect of picking each tiny thread individually lends to the luxurious allure of the spice, which has guaranteed saffron’s presence in the pantheon of earthly desires for the last 3,500 – 4,000 years.

And, deliciously recession-proof as the spice is, Manchegan saffron changes hands for a good chunk of change. At current prices, gold costs the same, per gram, as saffron. The US Agency for International Development, in conjunction with the Afghan government, is currently attempting to persuade poppy farmers in Afghanistan to turn their attentions to the saffron crocus, arguing that it will prove more lucrative to growers than the international trade in opiates currently does. In fact, at current prices, Afghan saffron fetches $1,360 a pound - around 38 times more than a farmer can expect to rake in from a field of poppies. The province of Herat is one of the most active in the country, and over a thousand farmers have requested bulbs from a US-backed distribution programme. At present, Afghanistan accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s opium production. In time, it may become a new powerhouse in the saffron trade.

With a strawlike texture, slightly metallic palate and its goldish-red hue, saffron has been used for just about everything the human condition has suffered from since the dawn of time. From a cure for black death, to easing stomach and liver complaints, to a cough remedy or a cardiovascular panacea, the list extolling the virtues of saffron is as long as the history of modern mankind itself. It is also a lavish ingredient in perfumes, paints and dyes. Little wonder then that a 360-kilogram shipment of the spice en route to western Europe from Rhodes, which was stolen from merchants by an avaricious band of barons, sparked a three-month-long conflict known as the “Saffron War”. The merchants’ chagrin was well-founded: in today’s terms the cargo was worth the equivalent of $500,000.

Manchegan saffron differs slightly from other varieties, and is noted for its vivid red colour and its potency. It is dried by means of hot embers, a method that serves to retain its fiery flavour: sun-dried saffron often loses some of its kick. A few strands are all that is required to add distinction to a paella or any number of other traditional rice and soup dishes. To optimize the piquancy of the spice, saffron boffins recommend heating it on a jar lid and adding it to a dish fifteen minutes or so before fruition.

The English town named after the spice is, of course, is Saffron Walden – formerly Chipping Walden, which during the 16th and 17th centuries was a major center of saffron cultivation and trade. It follows in a tradition of english places names with culinary overtones: Beer in Devon, Ham in Wiltshire... Fortunately, history does not record by what means Barton in the Beans, Leicestershire, Donkey Town, Surrey, or indeed Cuckoos Knob in Wiltshire came by their epithets. 

The Saffrom Rose Festival takes place every October in the village of Consuegra in La Mancha, near Toledo in which the saffrom flower takes centre stage closely followed by the famous procession of the “giants and big-heads”.
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