Sunday 20 February 2011

Threads of gold

Back in January we had lunch at l'Image in Preuilly. You know how it is; you've done some shopping and other bits and pieces in the morning and you just happen to be passing one of those local little restaurants which offers a set menu for lunch. You look at your watch and 'quel surprise' it is lunch time!  We had a lovely lunch; said hello to monsieur Pinkosz--the TV/satellite installer, his wife and team who arrived just after us and who wished us 'bon continuation'. 

As we were leaving Niall picked up a leaflet from the display. It was about saffron. So he hummed the refrain "I'm just mad about Saffron" from the '60s Donovan song 'Mellow Yellow'. It stayed lodged in both our brains for the rest of that day!

Anyway, back to saffron. The leaflet announced that Preuilly sur Claise hosts two saffron festivals. One on the third Saturday in February to celebrate the spice, the other on the 1st Saturday in July to sell the Crocus sativus corms--the plant which produces the saffron filaments. 

Yesterday was the 3rd Saturday so off we went to the Saffron Fair. I have, on a very rare occasion, cooked with saffron and know it is commercially cultivated in Spain but didn't know it is grown around here. 
  removing the saffron threads  photo: Les Safraniers de Touraine
Originally from Asia, Saffron has been used in cooking and dyeing in Europe since the Romans. After the fall of the Empire saffron cultivation vanished in Europe until the rise of Moorish civilsations in Spain, Italy and France. Later in the Middle Ages the best saffron was imported from the Middle East via Venetian and Genoese traders. Saffron was also greatly valued for its supposed medicinal properties. There was a huge demand during the Black Death [+/-1350 to 1370's]. 

The English word 'saffron' comes via Latin safranum from Old French safran. The source of the word can be traced back to either the Arabic for 'yellow': asfar; or Persian for 'having golden stigmas': zarparan

The whole harvesting process is done by hand. The flowers are picked, in autumn, by hand and then the the red-orange stigma and styles are carefully removed from the the rest of the flower; again by hand. This, and the fact that each corm only flowers once so it's cormlets need to be dug up split and replanted make it so incredibly expensive. You need between 120,000 and 150,000 flowers to produce 1 kg of saffron and that equates to 370 to 470 hours of manual labour! Thankfully a few filaments or strands are enough to flavour a dish (aboout 1/10 of a gram).

12th Saffron Fair, Preuilly sur Claise
 This year was the 12th Saffron Fair in Preuilly.   In the 1990's a local launched the revival of saffron growing and each year the event has become bigger. This year for the 1st time it was held in Preuilly's sports hall so that there would be enough space for the 16 saffron producers; as well as a few wine growers and producers of other things -- pottery, baskets, home-made soaps.

 There was a wide range of products made with saffron on sale as well as the little pots of the filaments. We saw producers of jams with saffron, saffron infused cordials and drinks but the most popular was pain d'epices [spice cake] with saffron.  

rapidly shrinking pain d'epices
We had a chat with one producer who came from Drache and tasted her pain d'epices with saffron, saffron and orange, and, saffron and chocolate. The saffron and orange combination won and we bought a pain d'epices with this combination. Although the producer assured us we could freezer it, we did tell her it was most unlikely that it would last much more than a few days--it was far too tasty! Yesterday afternoon we had a couple of slices with our tea and it was gorgeous! We'll have a slice again today, and I suspect our treat will be gone by tomorrow!  


Tim said...

Please note, five grams are poisonous... expensive poison! Someone was asking 90€s. Are you going to plant a few bulbs to get fresh saffron every year?
You didn't mention the Britsh saffron industry based around Saffron Walden. Carefully avoided the pains epices.. and that great nougat [had it before... excellent!]

Niall & Antoinette said...

Indeed Saffron Waldon used to be called Cheppinge Waldon and when they started growing saffron they changed the name. Norfolk and Suffolk also cultivated it but it did best round Saffron Walden. fell out of favour when new exciting things such as coffee and tea arrived as it was so labour intensive. Stayed on in S. Europe as it its use is more embedded in the cooking. In the Middle Ages there was also quite an intensive cultivation round Basle Switzerland until one year the bulbs failed.

No chance us planting any we have very heavy clay soil up here.

Yes you do have to be careful with it.

Jean said...

Fascinating. !!

Niall & Antoinette said...

Jean: It is isn't it. Medieval pirates sailing the Med would sometimes even ignore gold and take the saffron cargo instead as it was more valuable.
Shame Kat Humble's new series on spices doesn't include saffron; I suppose they excluded it because it is grown in Europe.

Tim: apologies for my poor typing--spotted quite a few typos in my reply...Sorry