The finest crop on earth

Producing saffron as pure as that from Safran de l’Estuaire takes not just perfect conditions but a large family prepared to carefully pick through the crocuses by hand

Words & Pictures: Kirsty Fergusson

Funny how one little flower, one little conversation can steer your life in a new direction. In a good way, that is – judging by the pleasing olfactory evidence in Sylvie Simonnot’s kitchen, where a gleaming wood-fired range topped with a workmanlike array of copper pans, has wrapped us in a pleasant warmth and the odours of jams and baking and … something else, less definable – but teasingly fragrant and slightly exotic.

Outside, it’s a bright November morning and the eye travels great distances easily, over the Gironde estuary to the Medoc peninsula; we’re about an hour’s drive north of Bordeaux, 80 miles south of La Rochelle in the luminous, vine and sunflower region of Haute Saintonge.

We’ve been in Sylvie’s garden, plucking the barely-opened blooms of the autumn flowering crocus (C. sativa) that march in long lines in cultivated strips, hewn from the level lawn. “Perfect soil for crocuses, clay over chalk,” says Sylvie, “and full sun. Doesn’t matter about the cold winters we get. Light and drainage are what counts.” It’s the end of the season, so the flowers are few and far between, but nevertheless, it’s hard on the back and a desperately delicate operation.

Back indoors, concentration lines our faces as we bend to the task, gathered around the island unit – scissors, tweezers and a little basket of purple flowers in front of each of us; “we’ll count the pistils aloud as we drop them onto the tray,” says Sylvie, “then we can check how many there are in a gram.”

“Un,” she says a fraction of a second later, having dismembered the petals and extracted the three-pronged scarlet pistil, snipped off the green end where they join (but not so severely that the three prongs fall apart) and deposited it on to the baking tray.

*Deux,” she adds a nanosecond later.

My contribution falls in pieces just in time for a competitively yelped “cinq!”. Tom, a friend who is spending a few days in France with me and has come along out of curiosity, looks up in alarm but places his intact, with some pride, on “huit.” We exchange a “crikey, this is going to take ages!” look.

“Allez-y!” encourages the nimble-fingered Sylvie, and the pace hots up, though there’s no chance of Tom or I coming remotely close to wearing the yellow jersey. Her not-quite-teenage daughters join us, exhibiting all the dexterity of Chinese infants on a mobile phone assembly line. The pretty panier of crocus flowers empties with unbelievable rapidity. Husband Ludo, maman, Ludo’s maman and friends all come and help when the harvest is at its peak.

It takes 150 flowers to produce a gram of gently dried pistils, which is all that saffron is (or should be).

A single kilo of high-quality saffron like this will fetch around 20,000 euros. And frankly, I’m not surprised; the patience, effort and skill required are endless. The initial investment in bulbs is not insubstantial either. (Powdered saffron is much cheaper and mostly imported from North Africa and the Middle East where there’s a naughty tendency to cut the saffron with powdered maize ‘tassels’ which have a remarkably similar texture and weight.) But Sylvie had no intention of commercialising her interest when she started planting her first bulbs, “it was a chance conversation with another producer that sparked my interest; I’m a lawyer by training – I didn’t become a safranière for the money.” Nevertheless, those initial bulbs have – as bulbs do – produced more bulbs and the number of plants now stands at 10,000 and growing. More importantly, curiosity recently has led Sylvie to get her saffron analysed for strength and purity and the results are just back: it’s top-dollar stuff, lusted after by top chefs everywhere. So, she’ll be selling it on the internet. It’s so good and so pure it almost sounds illegal.

Recipes

Sylvie soon found herself gripped by her new hobby – and experimenting with recipes. “I wasn’t much of a cook before the saffron,” she grins, “but the subtlety and versatility of the flavour has inspired me to use it in recipes ranging from fish to muffins, and I’ve finally got the hang of making really good jams and jellies. But you can use it with everything.”

Pear and Saffron Muffins (makes 6)

  • 1 egg
  • 60 g butter
  • ½ pot natural yoghurt
  • 1 pear
  • 100 g SR flour
  • 75 g caster
  • 4 or 5 pistils of saffron

Melt the butter and infuse the saffron, keeping it warm for several minutes. Beat the egg and sugar, add the flour and then the yoghurt and saffron butter. Mix until creamy; add small chopped pieces of pear. Bake in a bun tray at 180 for 20 minutes.

Pan fried scallops with saffron

  • 12 scallops
  • 20 cl white wine or pineau des Charentes (if you can get it)
  • 20 cl single cream
  • 8 pistils saffron
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil crystal salt, pepper

Warm the cream and infuse the pistils for several minutes. Pan fry the scallops in the oil for 2 minutes on each side, remove from pan and keep warm. Deglaze the hot pan by adding the wine or pineau, then pour in the saffron cream. Turn down the heat and let the sauce thicken for a minute or two. Serve on warmed plates with a good sprinkle of salt and pepper. Good with roast Mediterranean vegetables and rice.

Bon appetit!