It’s not unusual to come across clumps of thyme, rosemary shrubs, even wild oregano while rambling in sundrenched rocky Provence, but saffron?
Most of the saffron sold these days comes from Iran. But it was cultivated in France during the Middle Ages, and it said that the popes introduced it in Provence in the 14th century.
Céline and Sébastien Dalonis in Sabran, 20 km north-east of Uzès, are amongst a few growers who have decided to take up the tradition. Six years ago they launch Safranum, their saffron farm where they cultivate 60,000 corms on a quarter of an acre, following agroecologist principles. They sell their saffron directly to local consumers, on Provence markets, and they also sell to chefs like Lionel Lévy (Une table au sud in Marseille) or Armand Arnal (La Chassagnette in Camargues). See an interview (in French).
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices around, you usually add the treads towards the end of the cooking time, and despite its high price many Mediterranean cooks swear that a Bouillabaisse is not a proper Bouillabaisse without saffron. Saffron is also the defining ingredient in paellas and risottos.
Growing saffron is relatively easy; like olives, it thrives on the Mediterranean climate – strong dry summers and cold winters. Although cultivating this pretty flower is easy, you have to hand pick the red stigmas of the purple crocus then dry them – one of the main reasons saffron is so expensive. Also the stigmas loose a fair amount of weight during the drying process. Just think, it takes 200 crocus flowers to produce one gram of saffron. Harvesting is between October to November, a good time to discover the unique aroma and color and to understand why this culinary treasure sells between 19 and 34 euros per gram.