Harvesting Golden Saffron in Spain

I’ve just plucked the stigmas from three dainty crocus flowers, and I only have 249,997 more to go before I harvest enough for a kilo of Spanish saffron.

I’m learning the gentle art of “monda,“ removing the precious orange filaments from the purple crocus blossoms in Consuegra https://www.spain.info/en/destination/consuegra/ the heart of saffron country in La Mancha, Spain. LaMancha, after Iran and Turkey, is the world leader in saffron production.

In this process, everything‘s fragile, from the crocus petals to the yellow stamens that cozy up to the stigmas and make this a tricky extraction. The art’s in peeling back the petals and teasing out just the three stigmas per flower that make this all worthwhile.

I realize two things simultaneously: I don’t want to do this for a living, and I’ll never grumble about the price of saffron again. Depending upon market forces, saffron can cost more than gold.

This is just one tiny freeze-frame within the panoply of Consuegra’s Saffron Festival https://www.spain.info/en/calendar/fiesta-rose-saffron/  which has been praising the rose of crocuses since 1963. That these honey-scented little blossoms, such dainty shades of purple, yield such an assertive spice as saffron is just one of nature’s mysteries.

Into the field

A crocus plant awaits morning harvest in Consuegra, Spain. Betsa Marsh photo

Alvaro Lozano invites travelers to step between the furrows of his family’s crocus field and examine the dainty blossoms up close. The sun beats warmly far into October as he pinches off flowers and fills a woven basket.

Each year, crocus farmers hand-harvest in the mornings, supplying all the flowers for Consuegra’s Saffron Festival and saffron for export.

Consuegra has been following this natural progression in its fields and markets since the Muslims brought crocuses to Spain along the Silk Road a millennium ago.

The crocus bulbs, technically called corms, originated in Mesopotamia, but now Spanish farmers like to claim mastery over these delicate blossoms. “We have the best saffron,” Lozano proclaimed out among his rows of flowers. “Many people from Iran are coming here to copy our systems.”

Crowning a champ

The atmosphere pulses with tension inside a vast white tent in Consuegra’s central plaza. This Sunday morning, contestants race to remove the flowers’ stigmas as quickly and accurately as they can.

First up, a phalanx of children in regional costumes, poised to pinch. From “Go!”, it’s clear that they’ve been practicing their extraction skills, and the champs take home prizes.

Ladies next, again with steely concentration and flying fingers. It’s not just bragging rights here—the top prize is 600 Euros, about $650. A lovely lady in a floral scarf takes the title and the check, and walks through the festive streets as co-queen of Consuegra that day.

A crocus plant awaits morning harvest in Consuegra, Spain. Betsa Marsh photo

Pluck up your courage

It’s one thing to watch experts work the flowers, something else totally to try it myself. A group of self-proclaimed Crazy Teachers gives a quick tutorial on crocus-rose plucking inside Consuegra’s immense Castle of St. John. I pull out the stigmas in a little competition and take my saffron home in a tiny coffee pod.

Fresh crocus blossoms await amateur pluckers at the St. John Castle of Consuegra, Spain. Betsa Marsh photo

With parts of the castle dating back to 850, this landmark at the end of a line of Consuegra’s windmills is the heart of Don Quixote tourism in LaMancha. St. John’s was destroyed by Napoleon’s army in 1813, but town loyalists are working hard to rebuild the vast fortress.

Windmill power

Windmills and the Castle of St. John create the archetypal LaMancha backdrop for the fall harvest of saffron. Betsa Marsh photo

Five of Consuegra’s 12 windmills still work, and several are open for travelers. Climbers can spiral up “Sancho” windmill for milling lessons, and diners can pause for an atmospheric drink or dinner at Gastromolino windmill. All of the windmills align for great photos, day and night.

During the Saffron Festival, regional dance troupes compete in a plaza framed by whitewashed windmills. Add the vibrant embroidery, jaunty music and swirling wind for a trademark LaMancha moment.

 

Cover photo: Saffron field crocus, credit Betsa Marsh

 

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