Crazy About Saffron
Dan Quixote: The Quest for Saffron
By Dan Hayward, Savory Spice Boulder Partner
I spent nearly 13 years as a “spice guy,” so when I started planning a trip to Portugal and Spain, spices were on my mind. The reason for the trip was to celebrate my then-girlfriend Brie’s accomplishment of earning her PhD as a midwife, and we planned to visit historical sights, museums, botanic gardens, and dip our feet in the ocean (much needed for these landlocked Coloradans). But this trip was also going to be a great opportunity to find a small purple flower lovingly referred to as “red gold," the fall-blooming Crocus sativus, commonly known as saffron.
We embraced our entry into Spain by quickly ingesting as many tapas (small appetizers and snacks) as we could. The jamón, squid, cheese, olives and various other delectable plates ignited our senses and fortified us for our adventure to find saffron in the La Mancha region south of Madrid.
With no real plan and a mini convertible Fiat filled with gas, we headed toward the countryside and away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities to relax in a quaint town and find that beautiful purple flower.
The saffron harvest happens at the end of October, which aligned perfectly with our trip. Many towns have festivals to pay homage to this red gold that provides work and income for many in the region. About 30 minutes outside of busy Madrid the landscape gives way to more idyllic agricultural scenes dotted with rolling hills, olive and almond trees, and old growth grape vines.
Our first stop was Toledo, a town dominated by the 15th century castle at its center. This was a great place to get some lunch before we continued south. To where? We weren’t quite sure yet. It was our server, Paco, who led us in the right direction on our saffron quest. He mentioned that a small town, Campo de Criptana, was relaxing, quaint, and our best bet to find the elusive spice.
After a quick search for directions and possible lodging options, we zoomed off in our Fiat towards the Land of Giants. The region’s nickname refers to the mesmerizing old molinos (windmills) that dot the countryside's hilltops. After seeing them scattered throughout the landscape, it’s easy to understand why Don Quixote (written by Cervantes in 1605) and his faithful sidekick Sancho thought they were fighting dragons.
We found a lovely bed and breakfast in Campo de Criptana that granted us an amazing view of the windmills. The couple that ran the place, Goyo and Miraflor, were most hospitable and instrumental in helping us on our quest. Not only did they invite us to their bodega (a small winery inherited from his grandfather) located in the neighboring town of Alcazar de San Juan, but Goyo also told us that the best place to find saffron was in the town of Villafranca de los Caballeros. We were getting closer to finding red gold!
When we arrived in Villafranca de los Caballeros (which translates to “town of gentlemen”), we were treated to pastoral surroundings and a quiet downtown (population 5,098), but we were not sure where to go next. All along the way, I expected to see endless fields of purple crocus but nothing was apparent from the two-lane roadway entering town. As we crept along looking for an information office, we noticed a small government building with what was surely a good sign – a literal sign next to the entrance featuring a purple crocus. What happened next was nothing short of remarkable, and one of those travel adventures that you just can’t plan.
Thankfully Brie has an excellent command of the Spanish language so we were able to ask a woman working in the building with the crocus sign where we could find azafran (saffron). She seemed a bit puzzled at first. We told her that we did not want to buy any, we just wanted to see how they process it or see the fields. She called out to a colleague, an older gentleman of perhaps 70, and explained what these out of place Americans were looking for. He was eager to help and begged us to follow.
Picture this scene: a little old man on his bike with two Americans following along in their tiny car as he waved to all the townsfolk along the way. We wound our way through narrow streets and pulled up to a non-descript building and he indicated that this was the place. We were giddy with excitement but not sure exactly what we were about to get into.
There were a few men standing out front and they extended their yellow, saffron-stained hands to welcome us. We entered a small, warehouse-like space and were immediately blown away by the scene in front of us: two long tables piled high with purple crocus flowers, townspeople sorting red stigmas into bowls, mounds of picked-through flowers on the floor, and a drying apparatus in the corner. I started snapping pictures, somewhat oblivious to the people around us, and tried to absorb exactly what I was seeing.
We met Abel Gomez who explained to us that the crocus fields had been in his family for at least 100 years and their history went even further back than that. Brie told Abel what I do in the States, which helped him understand why I was so transfixed with his operation. I cannot say enough about how hospitable, warm, and welcoming all these genuinely friendly people were to us. They asked us if we could help sort the saffron and we eagerly accepted.
We spent about two hours learning how to deftly pick the three red stigmas from the flowers with speed and dexterity. This labor-intensive process gave us a much greater understanding of why this coveted spice is so expensive. It takes 250-300 flowers to collect just one gram of saffron threads - just one gram! That means you’d need roughly 112,000 to make one pound of saffron, probably more due to loss in volume and weight during the drying process. That is a head-spinning number.
Brie and I helped to process a few thousand flowers and enjoyed the din of conversation, laughter, and singing around us. This harvest happens near the end of October every year and the townspeople spend the better part of two weeks picking and sorting, usually working 12 to 18 hour days to profit from this red gold. Abel explained that once the saffron is sorted, dried, and packaged by the kilo, he has it certified and authenticated as true Spanish Saffron from La Mancha before selling it to his loyal buyers.
After a great lunch at a local café, we were invited to see the saffron fields. Abel jumped in our car and showed us where they painstakingly pick every flower by hand. It was only about 10 miles outside of town, and when we saw the purple fields stretching out in front of us, we were transfixed. It is almost unbelievable that this tiny little flower that grows from a bulb commands such a place of honor in the spice world.
There were about a dozen caballeros (gentlemen) bent over in the field making quick work of a process that must be done efficiently. Abel’s brother leads the team of harvesters and we saw them bringing bushels of flowers in woven baskets to be taken back to the warehouse for sorting. Truly backbreaking work!
We headed back to the warehouse and were treated to a fun, silly greeting from some of the kids whose parents work there. We spent another couple of hours sorting, talking, laughing, singing and generally enjoying the company of these hardworking people. We were treated to some snacks and beer for our labor and couldn’t thank Abel enough for allowing us the opportunity to learn more about this “spice of love.” We waved goodbye to the people of Villafranca de los Caballeros, a small box of saffron in hand as a parting gift.
The love, care, and generosity that goes into this process touched us both. Our adventure took us to the beautiful, magical city of Barcelona next but a piece of our hearts remained with that city of “red gold.” Esperamos volver a verte pronto (we hope to see you again soon)!
We carry a beautiful, high quality Spanish saffron that you can use to make a variety of flavorful Spanish recipes. Saffron is also an ingredient in a few of our Spanish and Latin inspired spice blends, adding a subtle sweetness and slight floral note.
Looking for something a little simpler? Our Saffron & Chanterelle Risotto Spice 'n Easy comes complete with Arborio rice for a one pot, easy-to-make risotto. Just add water, Parmesan cheese, and butter for a rich, flavorful dish that’s elegant enough for a special occasion and easy enough for everyday dinner.
For even more internationally inspired seasonings, shop our World Flavors selections.