Crocus sattivus is the botanical name given to the wonderful spice ‘saffron’, a prized spice by Greeks who used it as a cosmetic, the Romans who drank a saffron broth as a service to Venus, the God of Love, and Phoenicians as well as Buddhists, both of whom used it as a colour for clothing. It has always been one of the world’s most valuable products, with a price that has sometimes been higher than gold!
The spice originally came from Asia Minor but the Arabs are said to have brought the spice to Spain over 1000 years ago and today over 70% of the world’s production of saffron is grown on the high Castellian pateau.
In October of each year, the crocus flowers open up in the dark and at dawn there is a carpet of purple – the manto. The safran must be gathered in one day otherwise the threads lose their flavour and the harvest barely lasts 10 days.
The farmers pluck the flowers between their index fingers and thumbs. The women sit at long tables and skilfully separate the reddish stigma which are then roasted on a sieve on gas burners (traditionally coal was used). About 200 crocus flowers are needed to obtain 1gm of saffron and the average harvest by a family enterprise is around 3680gms. It is dried and preserved in a closet between layered sheets.
Saffron was once accepted as a currency and even today there is a Spanish expression for bartering – “to pay in espice“.
So next time you use take a small pinch of saffron threads – think of the saffron famers of Castilla – La Mancha.