Growing saffron crocuses always seemed like a rather romantic undertaking–until we visited Consuegra, Spain during the harvest season. The dry plains of Castilla La Mancha, about 90 miles south of Madrid, are perhaps best known as the stomping grounds of the befuddled knight Don Quixote. But farmers in the region grow about two-thirds of the world’s culinary saffron. It’s also the best on the market (just ask any Spaniard). The harvest season is usually the last three weeks in October and is capped by the Saffron Rose Harvest Festival (La Monda de la Rosa de Azafran) in Consuegra on the last full weekend of the month. We visited one year to take part in the festivities–and also got a lesson in the hard work that goes into picking and plucking the world’s most expensive spice.
The small crocuses are unusual spots of color in the red clay landscape, but the pickers really have little time to contemplate their beauty. Men and women alike arrive in the fields before dawn and spring into action as soon as the first rays of sun hit the blooms. They scoop up the flowers into big wicker baskets before their scent is lost to the wind. And that’s just the beginning. The three bright red stigmas must be plucked from each bloom by hand and then toasted over charcoal braziers. (The whole region smells great.) The ability to quickly separate stigma from flower is a prized skill in these parts. A competition between the top pickers from all the saffron-growing towns is the highlight of the harvest festival and the competition is intense. The top pluckers can go through about 100 flowers in less than three minutes.
We didn’t really appreciate their dexterity until we sat down in a tavern one evening with a small pile of crocuses that a harvester had given us. Even with guidance from a couple of local women, it took us an hour or more to pluck our flowers. We toasted our twisted and broken stigmas over the radiator in our hotel room, wrapped them in paper towels and carried them home. We swear that they flavored the best paella we have ever tasted. And we will never again complain about the price of saffron! Check out: www.turismocastillalamancha.com