Our local villages had an open day recently - and I went to have a look around a neighbour's saffron farm. I had not realised until fairly recently that SW France is an area which is developing saffron as an agricultural product. I knew that I could grow saffron here, but had not realised that it is also commercially viable.
Saffron comes from the three pronged style and stigmas of the purple flowering crocus Crocus sativus. This crocus, which flowers in the autumn, is sterile, so is reproduced by division of the clumps of corms (bulb like structures) which need to be separated out every three or four years to retain the plant's vigour. The time to plant Crocus sativus corms, and realise your own saffron crop, is July and early August. So - if you want your own, home grown saffron - now is the time to order your corms.
The plant is thought to have originated in the middle east and will have come to France via Mediterranean traders. In SW France they started growing it in commercial quantities before the Revolution but it then fell out of production on any measurable scale until the Conservatoire Botanique du Safran du Quercy started a project to re-establish and preserve the heritage of the plant in the area around Cajarc in the Lot. Saffron is now recognised as a traditional product of the region - along with, for example, truffles, walnuts and wine.
The project unearthed saffron plants from about 30 gardens where it had been grown for years - assembling around 80,000 corms. From this it has become a common crop between the Lot and Cère river valleys, thriving on the limestone causses the region is famous for.
So - how do you get from a pretty purple flower with orange/red stigmas to what is probably the world's most expensive spice? The tiny threads are picked, dried and packaged in airtight containers - and that is basically all there is to it. But of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, or saffron would be as cheap as, say, cinnamon or ginger.
To give you some commercial figures from the Conservatoire website - 150 Crocus sativus plants are required to produce approximately one gram of saffron spice. International research has found that you can plant 1000kg of bulbs in 1000m2 of suitable land and get 1 to 3 kilos of saffron from the yield.The University of Vermont has concluded that the best planting density is 6 to 12 corms per square foot, so if you planted around 4000m2 you would need up to 400 000 bulbs. You also need to rotate your crops as the plants lose their vitality after three or four years. After this long the corms are too tightly packed and need to be spread out. As the plant is considered to be sterile, they do not spread by seed. Vegetative reproduction, through multiplication of corms, is their natural means of propagation.
Saffron corms, ready for planting.
And the work is back-breakingly hard. In October, when the flowers are at their peak, and the weather is dry you pick the flowers and bring them under cover to a sorting table where the orange/red stigmas and plucked from the flower, which is then discarded. These need to be conditioned (i.e. dried thoroughly) before being packaged for storage or sale. As a small scale farmer you then have to market your product and possibly add value by developing saffron based products to sell along side the raw spice.
My neighbours have worked hard to develop their saffron business and sell at local markets and via the internet. They are building an on-site shop and have developed a range of saffron based products to extend their potential market. I bought a delicious elderberry and saffron vinegar which we use to make a salad dressing and I will be going back to them in the next few weeks to buy a small quantity of bulbs so that we can grow our own supply of saffron. The intensive nature of saffron farming means that I could never hope (or want) to grow enough saffron strands (or threads to give them their correct name) to farm a commercial crop - but it will be fun to try and become self sufficient in the world's most exclusive spice. At the same time, the autumn flowering purple crocii will add interest to the garden - making saffron a good example of the current darlings of the plant world "edimentals".
To order corms yourself, or to buy some of the other products my neighbours, Stephanie and Michel, make you can visit their website: http://lesafrandelaunay.free.fr/ . The bulbs are being harvested around now for sale and/or replanting at their farm in July and August. The extensive range of saffron related condiments are also available at local markets and via the farm.