Christmas celebrations in Sweden begin with the feast of St. Lucia on the 13th of December. Lucia is the patron saint of light and she is honored on this day. In homes that still observe the feast, the eldest daughter awakens early, dons a white garment sashed in red and places a crown of laurel that holds 4 candles upon her head. Legend tells us that Lucia, whose name means light, placed candles in a wreath she placed on her head in order to free her arms to carry bread she was smuggling to Christians hiding in the catacombs. These days the daughter leads a musical procession with her younger siblings in tow and serves the family special buns called lussekatt for their breakfast. The saffron flavored buns are usually shaped like the figure eight and are topped with raisins at either end of the spiral. The children may, if they wish, wear their costumes to school on this day. Winter months are dark in Sweden and the candles in Lucia's crown symbolize the light of faith and the promise of the sun's return.
I had not given much thought to saffron since a trip to Monreal, Aragon in the 1980’s. There is probably nothing in the kitchen so steeped in mystery, history, and misunderstanding as saffron. The seventeenth-century English physician and herbologist Nicholas Culpeper describes it in his Complete Herbal as "a useful and elegant aromatic of strong, penetrating smell and warm, pungent, bitterish taste," but to most people it is merely what gives the characteristic yellow color to paella, risotto Milanese, bouillabaisse, a host of Mediterranean and Eastern dishes and the above mentioned Lussekatt.
True saffron is simply the dried stigma of the Crocus sativus, or saffron crocus, which has been cultivated in the Old World since prehistoric times. About seventy thousand flowers are needed to produce one pound of the spice; this will take an experienced picker twelve days of back-breaking work. By the time it hits the spice shelf in a New York or Munich or Paris delicatessen, its value has increased tenfold with a price that is fast approaching that of gold. Ounce for ounce, it is also probably the most expensive legal drug-in pharmaceutical terms in some parts of the world it is considered as such-and I have heard that it is smoked in the Far East, though I cannot attest to the effects.
There are many reasons for the aura of mystery and exclusivity that surrounds this curious spice. It moves discreetly through a closed network of small farming families, local merchants who buy and export, and various other middlemen. There are no cooperatives, government subsidies, or agricultural research connected with saffron; in fact, its cultivation hasn't been significantly updated in three thousand years. Saffron obeys a completely free market. This practice was already widespread in ancient times, and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder commented that as a result "there is nothing so adulterated as saffron."
As you drive toward Monreal del Campo, in Aragon, on a sunny Spanish October afternoon, there is nothing to suggest that you are in the heart of saffron country at the height of its three-week season, except for some mysterious piles of withered purple petals at the edge of each bare field. In the village, a woman stepping out of her doorway with yellow stained fingers gives you a clue as to what is going on indoors-she and her family are busy esbrinando, picking the stigmata out of the crocus.
When the season begins, at some time in the early fall, depending on the weather, everything else takes a backseat. Although the farmers grow other crops during the rest of the year, saffron is the bread and butter of Monreal and nothing is allowed to interfere with its preparation. Once open, the Crocus sativus is unable to close up again and therefore must be picked as soon as possible; otherwise the stigma withers and the flower is much more difficult to handle.
The picking day begins at first light with a few shots of anis or coiiac to keep out the cold. Breakfast must wait: you can't pick on a full stomach. At the field, the pickers begin to harvest the flowers that have sprung up since they were last here. During a good season a field may be picked five times. As the pickers move in a line up the field, bending down from the waist to pluck the flowers, my ears still ring with "La Jota del Azafaran," all Aragonese folk songs are called jotas-
Young maid, so very early in the morning
You go off to pick the saffron rose
And the icy winds freeze your hands…
One doesn't expect so delicate a crop to demand such a harsh, dry climate and such hardy men and women to farm it. The cold wind and the rigid picking posture, which usually requires supporting all the weight on one leg, cause every malady from lumbago to frostbite. Part of the team is a the dog, whose job is to sniff out the tunnels made by the field mice that feast on crocus bulbs, so that the farmers can smoke them out. When all the new blossoms from the various fields have been harvested, the full baskets are taken home, and a quick, hearty brunch is disposed of. The table is then cleared and the flowers spread over it for the esbrine.
There's been nothing new in saffron farming since the horse and plow and the harrow used to flatten the tilled earth. The planting, weeding, and hoeing of saffron fields must be done by hand, to avoid hurting the bulbs. Tractors are ruled out, and so are chemical fertilizers and pesticides: there's nothing better than a bit of horse manure and occasional smoke to keep the mice away. To add to the problems of making saffron a paying crop in a mechanized world, the bulbs must be dug up, selected, and transplanted every three years; otherwise they become "lazy" and prone to disease. As if that weren't enough, after each three-year cycle, the field should ideally have a rest from saffron for another twelve years. Production varies from field to field and from season to season, but generally the first year's crop yields about four pounds of saffron per acre, the second twenty, and the third eighteen. Since a farmer has to plan his crop two years ahead, demand and supply are frequently at odds. He will use this in his favor, selling his saffron off a little at a time: it is not so much a cash crop as a tax-free savings account. When he has to pay for a new car or for a daughter's wedding, he will dip into his saffron chest and arrange an appointment with the merchant; business hours are after dark, because no farmer wants his neighbor to see his saffron any more than his bank statement.
Only a doorbell marked AZAFRAN identifies the merchant's office where the transaction takes place and where the saffron is then graded, packed, and exported. Saffron exporters in Spain range from Seville to Zaragoza. In Monreal, the tradition is so established that the town maintains a small Museo del Azafrán. Here you can see how little has changed over the years, for not only the implements and techniques but also the weights and measures still in use date back ten centuries to the Arab conquest of Spain.
In Corycus, on the Turkish coast opposite Cyprus, a thousand years before Christ, I would have seen much the same process as I have seen in Monreal. But long before that, the ancients discovered the properties of the fiery-red stigma of the wild crocus sativus, five varieties of which still grow from Italy to Kurdistan. So many miles had to be covered for just a handful of them to be gathered that the need to cultivate the flower soon became apparent. The words for saffron in Greek, krokos, and in Hebrew, karkom, probably come from Corycus, where it was first cultivated.
In Britain, Edward III introduced the crocus to the peasants of that windswept part of Essex still known as Saffron Walden; this initiative was so successful that the farmers were nicknamed crokers. Saffron was soon to be found in medieval gardens and kitchens all over Europe; it was indispensable for coloring cheeses and for adding a rich fragrance and golden hue to cakes and pastries. Many of these traditional recipes survive: for the Cornish saffron buns; the old Russian kulich, an Easter bread shaped like a chef's hat; and the Swedish lussekatter (St. Lucia's cakes) or plaited Christmas saffransbrod.
Though saffron dye is not colorfast and thus was used only for ceremonial robes, the medieval church found that saffron-tinted tinfoil could pass for gold leaf in illuminated missals, and for gold thread in church vestments. Renaissance artisans used it to great effect in mixing colors for frescoes and stained glass. One such artisan, working on the Duomo of Milan, is credited with inadvertently inventing risotto Milanese when he saffron-tinted the rice at a wedding feast as a joke.
Adulterated saffron was so rife in medieval Europe that regular inspections were held, like those at Nuremberg, where the convicted adulterator, along with his evidence, would be burned at the stake. This severity, usually reserved for punishing far more serious crimes, shows the importance saffron had regained as a medicament. It had become a midwife's standby in difficult births as well as an antidote to consumption. The best-known among its many remedial uses was as the cure for hangover, taken as an infusion during or after a drinking bout, although the British botanist Dr. William Turner warned that "too much taken with wine will send drinkers laughing to their death."
Not only did Europe and the East hunger for saffron at any price-for a long time the old Spanish saying onza de azafrán, onza de oro (ounce of saffron, ounce of gold) was literally true-but it was probably the only spice exported to the newly developing American colonies. Then the Industrial Revolution began to draw the English crokers and their Continental counterparts away from their fields, leaving the Spanish to satisfy most of the world's demand.
After the Second World War, though, habits changed and the demand for saffron began to taper off. Many Spanish fields were turned over to more "rational" crops. Saffron farming could have easily died out altogether but for persistent farmers. Their tenacity was rewarded when a price jump of 1,000 percent from 1970 to 1980 left them years ahead of the competition. Rapidly, other countries Greece, Italy, France-began to resurrect their abandoned saffron fields. The Greeks, with cheaper labor, are now undercutting Spanish prices; but neither do they have the knack nor Kashmir the climate to produce the Spanish quality recommended by cookbooks and sought after by more demanding buyers. Other countries - Pakistan, Burma, China - consume virtually all of the saffron that they produce.
The biggest saffron users are those who not only can assimilate the price rises but are probably provoking them: the pharmaceutical companies, which no longer extol the virtues of saffron - professional discretion? - but use huge amounts nonetheless. We are left guessing at the uses it is put to, but I'm sure many of them still come from among Pliny's "Twenty Remedies." One pharmacy student's notes that I perused list saffron as a carminative, antispasmodic, tonic, emmenagogue, and coloring agent. More clues can be found in folk medicine. In Monreal they use saffron water to calm babies' teething pains, and indeed one pharmaceutical preparation sold for this purpose proves to consist mainly of saffron. Homeopaths and herbalists also prescribe tincture of saffron for hysteric disorders and other ailments. If the price keeps rising, saffron may be driven off the spice shelf and into the drug cabinet.