The Nasrid sultans offered their guests an exotic menu. Dishes of rice, eggplant, artichokes, spinach and sweet peppers filled bellies. Aromas of cumin, caraway, nutmeg, sesame, coriander, cinnamon and mint perfumed the air. Figs, dates, oranges and almonds tickled taste-buds. Cooks whipped up sweets of sherbet and marzipan using newly introduced sugar.
While Andalusia’s semi-arid climate create harsh farming conditions, the Moors found the region ideal for producing the many delectable fruits, vegetables and spices which they introduced to Spain.
According to this link, the Moors popularized the use of saffron in Spain. After reading this Saveur article about the saffron harvest, written by food journalist and former chef, Sally Schneider, and accompanied by wonderful photos from Owen Franken, I have a new appreciation for the spice.
From field to bottle, saffron production is incredibly labour intensive. The contents of the tiny, one-half gram bottle of saffron in my cupboard came from 80 hand-picked flowers. After harvesting the flowers, workers carefully pulled the stigma from the flowers. The stigma are then dried. During the drying process, 5 kilograms of stigmas shrink to only 1 kilogram of saffron. One hectare of land yields only 3 – 5 kilograms of saffron. To put it into perspective, one hectare yields about 8,000 kilograms of fresh parsley, which results in roughly 1,000 kilograms of dried parsley. So, the same land area results in 200x more dried parsley than saffron. Given the low yields and high-degree of hand labour required, it now seems quite reasonable to me that saffron is the world’s costliest spice.
Gourmands say that Saffron from the La Mancha area of Spain is the best in the world. Husband and wife, Juan Antonio Ortiz and Maria Ángeles Serranone, are La Mancha artisanal saffron producers. They offer both saffron, under the label Molineta de Minaya, and crocus bulbs for DIYers.
I will carefully source my next saffron purchase (not ready to go the DIY saffron route just yet), most likely seeking out an artisanal producer. The growing supply of counterfeit and additive-laced saffron, which I read about while researching this post, is disconcerting.
Stay tuned for my next post. It will be a seasonal menu influenced by the cuisine of the Moors (and yes, saffron is one of the ingredients).