Saffron hardly prompts images of the sloping verdant expanses of Burgundy, and yet, cultivation of this valuable spice in France dates back to the 13th century when traders are thought to have imported it from the Middle-East. As the most valuable spice in the world, and indeed one of the most valuable materials by weight, harvesting saffron proved an intriguing first experience while WWOOFing through France this autumn.
Harvested from the pistons or stigma of the crocus sativus, the deep red filaments must be quickly yet delicately plucked by hand and dried before preserving as the coveted spice. The process involves hours of stooping low to collect baskets brimming with flowers whose simple beauty is secondary only to the precious threads enclosed by the pale violet petals.
I doubted that volunteering on organic farms in France would result in exposure to a spice I had only rarely encountered in fragrant rice dishes. Having grown quite accustomed to a student’s budget, I hadn’t exactly been consuming gourmet products while studying in Belgium.
This elegant autumnal crocus, however, blooming only several weeks each year, became a mealtime staple for a few short weeks. From infused confitures of pear or peach made from fruit trees grown on the property, to slowly roasted chicken, rubbed with a blend of saffron and olive oil, surrounded by squash from the garden, steeping in the juices, saffron became a familiarly versatile flavor. While saffron is not an icon of French culinary culture, our host, Joël, introduced us to not only this specialty spice, but also to the simple art of homey French cuisine. With yellow stained finger tips from hours of picking out the tender saffron filaments, we grew accustomed to the evening glass of wine, the nightly cheese course, and the pervasive regional branding of everything from coarse table salt to the AOP Burgundian Epoisses cheese (one of my favorites), with it’s pungent scent and distinct orange-colored rind.
The feeling of eating locally was nothing akin to the “buy local” urban (and often overpriced) farmer’s markets I’ve often visited in the US, but more of a matter-of-fact mentality, an unpretentious understanding of eating seasonally and taking pride in the bounty of the land. This impression was heightened by biking through the surrounding fields, lined with almost unbelievably picturesque rows of cabbages and lettuce, past ripening pumpkins, freshly turned soil, revealing smooth, newly unearthed potatoes, and greenhouses protecting the last of the late-season tomatoes. To bike through rural Burgundy in the early autumn instilled a peculiar sense of well-being, as though the fertility of the region were inexhaustible. Whether strolling the property (after a sometimes arduous day of harvesting) and gathering a bowlful of raspberries for dessert, or baking the season’s final apples into a tart with saffron-infused honey, the stay at Safran des Aulnes brought forth an inspiring example of living simply off of the land.
Do you have any surprising saffron information, recipes, or questions? Please feel free to share or ask below!