saffron and crocus smallIn autumn Provence is quietly aglow with purple flowers. No, not lavender, but crocuses: grown to produce the region's "red gold", the fragrant spice saffron (safran in French).

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Many saffron farms open their doors to the public during the harvest season, and a visit is a great mix of fun, physical exercise, learning and, very likely, a few delicate gastronomic treats as well.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

The saffron crocus has been cultivated for well over 3000 years. It was probably brought to France by the Romans, then later promoted by the Moors and, in the Middle Ages, by the food- and wine-loving Avignon Popes.

saffron modern world productionBut production steadily declined, hit by fungal disease, harsh weather, competition from cheaper foreign imports and, in wartime, a shortage of manpower, for harvesting saffron is, as you'll find out shortly, enormously labour-intensive.

It's only very recently that the tradition has been revived. Today there are hundreds of saffron farms (safranières) in Provence.

Even so, France remains a relatively minor producer, as you can see from this map showing the many other countries across the world where saffron is grown. Today, over 90 per cent of saffron comes from Iran.

SAFFRON FARM VISITS

Don't expect to see vast acres of purple in Provence to rival its famous lavender fields. The crocus is much less showy. The little plants are just 15 cm / 6 inches high, sometimes less. What's more, they're not around for long.

picking a crocusOne day the flowers are still tight buds. Next morning the farmer will wake up to find an entire field of crocuses in full bloom. Then he or she must move very fast indeed because they only last a day.

The flowers must be picked by hand at dawn, before the sun has withered them. And after that the work is still far from over.

The female part of the flower, the stigma, is what produces the saffron. There are three in each crocus, forked and (although we always think of saffron as yellow) deep red in colour.

They must be detached gently as soon as possible with the finger nail, taking only the red end of the filament and leaving behind the orange base where the flavour is much weaker.

The stigmas are dried in the next 24 hours and then need to mature for several months before use.

It takes 200 flowers to produce one gram of saffron. The fragrant petals are discarded for mulch, which seems a frightful waste.

funfactIn ancient Greek mythology, Crocus was a handsome youth in love with a nymph, Smilax. When she tired of his affections, she turned him into a saffron crocus whose glowing red heart continue to symbolise his firey passion.

saffron crocus harvestMany countries associate crocuses with the early spring. But the crocus sativus - the only type to produce saffron - is a different variety.

Mauve or mauve veined with white (never yellow, like some ornamental crocuses), this is a contrary flower. It waits for cold weather before blooming in the late autumn and dying back in the spring.

After the corms have divided, the farmer separates them and replants them in summer: the crocus does not reproduce by seeding. So the saffron cycle is quite out of sync with most other crops.

The harvest in Provence lasts about a month. It starts in the colder parts (Vaucluse and Les Alpes de Haute Provence), in early October: the exact date depends on the weather.

Then it moves progressively further south towards the coast and is finished by late November.

Many safranières here are tiny, family or one-person operations: saffron patches, really, rather than saffron farms. One grower, Delphine Douet, simply laughed when I asked her how many acres she has. "We don't speak in terms of acres and kilograms, but in square metres and grams," she said.

Delphine's fascination with saffron started some years ago in a spice store in India. The owner took a mysterious liking to her ancient trainers and offered her a bag of the precious spice if she would let him have them.

Today, on her safranière, 13'Or Rouge (pronouced "tresor rooge", she farms just 700 square metres / 840 square yards of land, set out on restanques (traditional dry stone terraces). Like many other saffron farms, it's a real labour of love.

Harvests are minute. A typical grower might expect a yield of just one kilogram a year. Fortunately (for the farmers) saffron is expensive: judged by the price per weight, it's one of the costliest products in the world, far dearer than truffles. Fortunately (for us) a very little saffron goes a very long way so you don't need to buy much.

delphine douet saffron growerSome farmers accept visitors all year round, though most only open their doors for the harvest which is, after all, the best time to go. The growers are extremely busy then, of course, so you must always check with them ahead before you turn up.

A typical tour will take a couple of hours. You'll learn all about saffron production and probably be given the chance to help with the harvest, though you won't be expected to turn up at dawn or work your fingers to the bone!

Afterwards you can expect some sort of tasting by way of reward. Some farms give cooking lessons too.

Pictured with a selection of her delicious saffron-scented jams ready to sample, Delphine (who speaks English by the way) might let you bring your own picnic. Or you can try a specially designed saffron menu at her local restaurant.

Where to visit a saffron farm: Saffron farms can be found all over Provence, in Vaucluse, Les Alpes de Haute Provence, Bouches du Rhone, Var and the Alpes Maritimes, as well as in Northern France.

Many - though by no means all - growers belong to the Association des Safraniers de Provence, whose website includes a short list of farms that welcome visitors.

In the Bouches du Rhône a cluster of safranières can be found in Roquevaire, just north of Aubagne. For some of them, including Delphine's you'll have a short-ish walk from the car park up the hill to the saffron field: there's no direct road access.

There's one saffron farm in Marseille itself, in the hills to the south of the city, which you can visit by appointment: Le Safran de Marseille, 193 chemin des Prud'hommes, 13010 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 6 12 62 53 05.

In Vaucluse, the Carpentras Tourist Office arranges organised tours to farms at harvest time. A popular destination is L'Aube Safran in Le Barroux, which also offers luxury rooms. It's in the foothills of Mont Ventoux, near the llama farm just outside the same village. Another saffron farm which also offers chambres d'hôtes is Safran du Soleil, near the hill village of Bargemon in the Var.

In view of the general French enthusiasm for food festivals celebrating anything and everything, it's amazing that there are very few fêtes du safran or saffron markets in Provence.

But for the last couple of years the village of Sillans la Cascade in the Var has organised one in mid-July to coincide with the planting of the crocus corms there, with a market, cookery demonstrations, conferences, children's activities and a giant paella.

Another arrival on the scene is Marseille's traditional, recently revived garlic fair in June which also includes saffron producers.

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THE USES OF SAFFRON

Saffron is used in cuisine of all sorts: bouillabaisse, paella and fish sauces; omelettes and soufflés; spicy North African tagines; infusions and alcoholic drinks; pancakes, ice-creams and desserts.

Only a few of the potent strands are needed, and you should rehydrate and infuse your yoghurt / eggs / other ingredients with them for a few hours before cooking.

Saffron has also long been seen as a miracle cure for all sorts of ailments, from cardio-vascular disease to pre-menstrual tension and Alzheimer's.

Some even claim it has a beneficial effect in treating cancer. Be sure to eat the stigmas if you are taking saffron in an infusion as all the goodness is concentrated in them.

Saffron imparts a sense of well being and personal equilibrium, acting as a tonic or, if that's what you need at the time, as a sedative. In fact, if you take part in a saffron harvest you might come across bees fast asleep in the flowers and find your own fingers going numb!

Historically, saffron was a cosmetic: Cleopatra is said to have bathed in saffron-infused asses' milk and the Greeks and Romans used it as perfume. Today there are some saffron-infused beauty products on the market again.

Finally saffron is a (very expensive) dye for fabrics, such as the robes of Hindu and Buddhist monks or for pigments in mediaeval paintings and illuminated manuscripts.

HOW AND WHERE TO BUY SAFFRON

Straight from the grower. Because of its high price, saffron is frequently falsified in some way.

pot of saffronThe main fraud is to mix the valuable red saffron stigmas with something else: their own flavourless orange base, or similar-looking stigmas from other plants such as marigold, safflower and arnica, or some chemical product.

Delphine Douet showed me her collection of saffron sachets from around the world. Most, even established brands, were fakes in one of these ways. One French supermarket pack even had a health warning about its additives in very small print!

So how to avoid the scams? Never buy saffron in powder form, or in a jute bag. It should be sold in filament form and in an airtight container, like the one pictured. The year of harvest and the name of the safranière should be marked on the packet.

The stigmas themselves should be unbroken, slightly moist and bright red, with no trace of the yellow-orange base.

However, if you pinch them, they will leave a yellow stain on your fingers and, if dipped in water, they should turn it gold, not red.

Many growers also make and sell a whole range of saffron-scented produce such as jams, honey, preserves, cakes, cookies, syrups and even vinegar, salt and mustard. Some also offer mail order, including for shipments abroad.

And if your visit to the farm leaves you just mad about saffron and keen to try growing yourself (a surprising number of people do), they'll even sell you some crocus corms.

Photo credits (from top): © Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, Wikimedia Commons, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse (two images), SJ for Marvellous Provence, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse.

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