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Spanish Treasure

I’ve always been drawn to stories about difficult food so I really enjoyed Sally Schneider’s story, Saffron Fields of Spain from Saveur.  Noting its introduction to Spain by the Moors in the tenth century, Schneider describes the very particular way the flower will allow itself to be harvested.  Witness to the pre-dawn ritual in northeastern Spain, she writes:

A handsome and somewhat fierce-looking woman in her seventies, dressed entirely in black, talked tenderly to her teenage granddaughter as she worked. With one hand, she picked up a flower and separated the petals; with the other, she stripped the threads from the yellow style to which they were attached. (She took care not to include the styles themselves, which would diminish the saffron’s value.) The threads were then tossed onto a tin plate, and the spent flower dropped to the floor. The old woman stripped each blossom in less than four seconds. An experienced picker, she could strip about 1,100 flowers in an hour, producing about a quarter of an ounce of saffron; a day’s work would yield two to three ounces of the spice, an amount worth as much as $850 on the retail market.

“How long will you work today?” I asked the women, who talked and sang songs as they labored. They laughed shyly, shrugging and pointing to several baskets of flowers still waiting in the corner. “Till it’s done,” said one. “Till it’s done.”

With our notions of wealth and prosperity shifting, I thought this description of hidden saffron especially poignant:

Not all farmers necessarily sell their saffron as soon as it is harvested. It can be kept for years if stored in an airtight vessel away from light and moisture. Some stash it away for emergencies, or until they can get a better price. “It is like having a savings account,” María Gómez explained to me, adding that parents often leave saffron to their children in their wills. One woman, seemingly of little means, surprised the town by leaving her children more than 30 pounds of saffron, accumulated over the years. Farmers often hide saffron among their good clothes, which are then permeated with its aroma. The churches are filled with the smell of saffron when everyone wears his Sunday best.

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