Most people associate saffron with Middle Eastern cooking. But this exotic and highly-prized spice was successfully produced in the Quercy region of southwest France throughout the Middle Ages. After a hiatus following the French Revolution, production resumed in the Lot Valley about 15 years ago. Today, around 80 producers are based in the region, many of them around the town of Cajarc in the Lot département.
A painstaking process
But where does saffron come from? It’s produced from the stigmas of crocus flowers – the crocus sativus Linnaeus, a purple-flowered variety that blooms in autumn. Each flower produces three red stigmas – you can see them clearly in the photo at the top. They have to be carefully separated from the flower by hand, then dried and conditioned. The filaments are used either whole or powdered to flavour both savoury and sweet dishes.
It takes around 200,000 flowers to produce 1 kilogram of saffron!
The labour-intensive process and the tiny yield ensure that the spice has a rarity value, amply reflected in the price – hence its nickname, red gold. Fortunately, you only need a small amount to flavour a dish.
Cajarc Saffron Fair
It was with a guilty conscience that I left the SF on Sunday cleaning our bilious green swimming pool for the last time this year before putting it to bed. Cajarc was holding its annual saffron fair last weekend and I couldn’t stifle my journalistic instincts.
I drove over le Causse de Limogne, resplendent in its autumn colours of red and gold and down into the Lot Valley. It was a gorgeous autumn day, if a bit windy, but the cliffs to the south of Cajarc shielded it from the vent d’Autan. Cajarc is not a big place, nonetheless I wandered about for a bit before I found the Office de Tourisme , where there was an exhibition about the history of saffron.
Saffron was probably brought from the Holy Land by returning crusaders and/or by Arabs travelling up from Spain. The Lot Valley provided the ideal growing conditions for the crocus bulbs: hot, dry summers, cold winters and well-drained calcareous soil.
Production took off in response to the high demand for saffron both as a culinary spice and as a dye for cloth. The Lyon silk industry was a major customer during the middle ages. A series of freezing winters, the difficulties of sustaining the labour-intensive process and the French Revolution ended saffron’s commercial production. A handful of families kept production alive for their own use.
In a hall behind the Tourist Office the Marché au Safran was taking place. You could buy all sorts of products incorporating saffron, including foie gras, chocolate, cheeses, pâtisseries, syrups, liqueurs, flavoured oils, honey, jam, sauces and soaps. The producers’ association, Les Safraniers du Quercy, had a stand explaining saffron’s cultivation and production.
A bit of a damp squib
The best bit was a visit to a safranière – saffron farm. Luckily I was hanging around when they announced it. A producer walked a group through the town to his smallholding on the outskirts. Cajarc holds the fair in October when they harvest the flowers: they plant the bulbs in July. The smallholding should have been a riot of purple.
“This year, the plants have produced only about 900 flowers instead of the usual 7,000. We had a drought in the spring, a rotten summer and now a drought in the autumn. C’est pas normale. I should have watered when I planted the bulbs,” the saffron producer said.
The president of the producers’ association said they were very disappointed at the poor showing for visitors to the fair.
As well as selling the saffron the safranier also does a good trade in crocus bulbs at local markets. After three years, each bulb has multiplied into another 15-20. The producers’ association strictly controls the quality of the saffron. The safranier told us about another producer whose crop was rejected because his workers had not cut the stigmas off in the right place. He must have been crying into his pastis.
Les Safraniers du Quercy recommend around 0.1 gram of saffron filaments for a dish for 4-6 people. They say you should steep the filaments in hot water or stock for 24 hours ideally and then add the liquid to the dish 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time. They also suggest making ice cubes out of the liquid so you have it to hand when needed.
I use saffron in risotto and fish dishes. It goes best with white fish rather than oily fish in my opinion. It also complements seafood like mussels or scallops. Local dishes include cassoulet with saffron and a medieval favourite, tripes au safran, which apparently went down a storm in Albi. I’ll stick with the fish.
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