From the bouillabaisse fish soup of Southern France to the biryani rice dishes of South Asia there is a common thread (literally); the dried stigma threads from the crocus flower known as saffron. Here in Spain, no self-respecting quality paella would be complete without the reddish hues and earthy flavour of Spanish saffron.
Following our introductory monthly INC meeting last year, Susannah meets up with David Sáenz at his shop, La Melguiza to find out about the heritage of this fascinating spice.
With a background in consultancy and delicatessens, Sáenz noticed a burgeoning interest in Spanish saffron and now sells it in all its guises; from saffron-infused shampoo to body lotion and even honey saffron sweets.
What is saffron and where is it grown?
Saffron comes from the dried stigma and styles (threads) of the crocus flower and is cultivated in an arid, windswept belt from Central Spain in the West to Kashmir in the East. Whilst La Mancha with its protected appellation known as the Denominación de Origen Protegida is responsible for over 90% of Spain´s production there is also a small amount cultivated in Teruel.
What´s the difference between Spanish saffron and the Iranian variety?
The main differences can be seen in the quality. As in all natural produce, time and consistency contribute to the overall quality of the end product. You always need to shorten the time between extracting the product from the land to processing it to ensure it doesn´t spoil. In Iran the process of extracting the threads from the flower to drying them takes longer as they have vast areas to harvest and a poorer transport system. The saffron threads are then dried out in the sun which means there is less control over how much toasting they receive. Whereas in Spain the threads are dried in huge drums over a fire by eagle-eyed experienced abuelas who ensure the toasting is even.
Has saffron always been popular in Spain?
Yes, about a 100 years ago more than 50% of Spanish cuisine used saffron. For example, it was used in all dishes containing pulses as in callos y garbanzos (tripe and chickpeas), pollo a la pepitoria (chicken with almond and saffron sauce); patatas a la importancia (potatoes with saffron, garlic and white wine); seafood dishes – particularly clams and also puddings. The grassy flavours of Saffron have also traditionally been used in desserts such as flan, ice creams, sponge cakes.
Why is there an upsurge in demand now?
People are more interested in provenance, in the origins of good quality ingredients. Up until 6 or 7 years ago Spanish saffron wasn´t selling much but now I have Spanish and a lot of overseas clients. Editor´s Note: I witness some loyal Middle Eastern Embassy customers eagerly stack up a large number of saffron boxes on the counter as we speak.
Isn´t saffron extremely expensive?
Actually the lesser quality saffron is expensive for what it is. Whereas, the top quality version imparts a lot of flavour and colour with just a few threads so it can be used sparingly.
How should one use it?
I recommend soaking the threads in warm water and adding it all to savoury dishes. You can also steep saffron in milk for desserts.
What´s next for La Melguiza?
In addition to our line of saffron-imbued cosmetics, lotions, candles and craft beer I am about to launch some organic saffron-flavoured pistachos from La Mancha. I have a feeling they will be as successful as our unpasteurized orange blossom saffron honey. Editor´s Note: Beware – these yellow crunchy numbers are very moreish indeed.
La Melguiza shop/showroom – Calle Santiago, 12. Metro Opera.
https://www.lamelguiza.es/ Online orders