Saffron… it took more than a year of work in TaIiouine, in the heart of the Sirwa mountains in southern Morocco, to give these few filaments an incomparable taste to your dish. Moroccan saffron is renowned for its quality.
But what makes a saffron good? The plant itself? The soil in which the saffron bulb plants its roots? The way it is cultivated and the climatic hazards ? The harvest ? The pruning, which consists in separating the pistils from the rest of the freshly picked saffron flowers ? Drying ? Sorting and packaging?
All of the above, of course, but in order to distinguish the different qualities of saffron produced in Taliouine, it is necessary to focus on the harvesting and pruning, the drying and sorting.
The plant: all saffrons in the world are identical!
Saffron is a cultivar, which reproduces only by dividing the bulbs. Even if there are small genetic mutations, this means that all saffron bulbs are identical. There are no subspecies, as with other plants. Iranian saffron, Moroccan saffron or the one that was grown in England, in Saffron Walden, are the same.
The only difference between a bulb and another one could be its age: after a certain time the bulb is exhausted, and it must be replaced.
The soil of saffron fields and the climatic conditions
The soil and the climatic conditions are important, of course. While saffron is associated with "hot" countries (Morocco, India…) it is in fact a mountain plant that has been successfully cultivated in Europe, including in the Swiss mountains.
Saffron, in order to flower, must be cold, a little thirsty, not too hot, it does not like to have its roots in water and the soil too heavy — like all bulbs. But these climatic conditions, the preparation of the field, the irrigation, will have more impact on the quantity of saffron to harvest than on its quality.
Then comes the moment of the saffron harvest
As you can see, it is an exhausting work. You have to go through whole fields of saffron, broken in two so as not to lose time in getting up and down again.
Don't waste time, because the saffron harvest is a race against the sun. In autumn, the days have already shortened, the sun rises quite late on these Moroccan mountains, but the harvest must be completed before 10 o'clock, when the sun's rays will open the flowers and damage the precious pistils hidden inside. At the beginning and end of the harvest, as in this film, the fields are not very full, but at the height of the harvest, it is a real race that mobilises the whole family to fill the small wicker baskets in time.
Immediately afterwards comes the pruning
Pruning is a pruning technique which consists in removing the excess branches or leaves from a plant or a tree. In the case of saffron, we prune everything except the three red pistils in the heart of the flower. Because they are well hidden in the middle of the petals, the gesture must be precise and quick, not crushing the pistils or the flower to keep the quality of the filaments.
It is important to cut "not too much, not too little". If you cut too much, you lose useful material, the filaments are more difficult to separate from the petals. If you cut too little, you leave too much uncoloured, white or yellow, which does not produce any spice. The saffron is then of less good quality.
The drying of saffron
It must be slow, progressive, and the filaments must imperatively dry in the shade, away from the sun. Today, there are processes of drying with hot air, which allow to accelerate the process without decreasing the quality of saffron, on the other hand it gives a slightly different taste. On the other hand, a sun-dried saffron will lose its flavour. Shadows are saffron's friend. Saffron must be dry enough to keep well, and for its price to be a real "dry" price. A well dried saffron can be kept for years without losing its flavour.
Sorting before packing
As it is unavoidable to cut yellow or even white parts of the pistils, the high quality saffron will undergo a last sorting before packaging, to remove as much as possible these useless filaments. It is then placed in a hermetically sealed cellophane bag, ready to be shipped.
Impossible to mechanise?
With the exception of the drying process, the elements that influence the quality of saffron are manual work where the safety of the gesture is essential. This is what makes the price of saffron, because the flower and the pistils it contains are too delicate for mechanisation.
During the daily harvest, it is necessary to choose the flowers ready to open, the pruning cannot be mechanized under penalty of breaking the filaments.
A high quality saffron can take twice as long to prepare, between pruning and sorting the filaments. This explains the price difference, as well as the price difference with European various saffrons.
Don't think that saffrons from Saffron Walden, Quercy or Gâtinais are much better than those from Morocco, Iran or Kashmir.
But the hours of work required to produce a few grams of spice simply cost ten times as much in England!
One last word: the shape of saffron
Saffron is sold in filaments or powder. It is recommended to buy saffron in filaments, but only because it is easier to judge its quality. Most cut saffron is powdered saffron. The only way to cheat on saffron threads is to coat them with oil so that they weigh more…
But there is no difference in taste between powdered saffron and saffron threads. You can even reduce it to powder when you prepare it!