The world’s most expen­sive spice, saf­fron, shows promise as an income boost for the olive oil pro­duc­ers of Les Garrigues, in the province of Lerida in west­ern Catalonia.

With prices for ‘liq­uid gold’ at low lev­els and those for the ‘red gold’ lucra­tive, last year 28 olive oil pro­duc­ers planted saf­fron bulbs in the dis­trict, about 100 miles inland from Barcelona.

They were inspired by the expe­ri­ence of two saf­fron ‘pio­neers’ who started com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion of saf­fron there about five years ago — now oper­at­ing under the busi­ness name Naturges Ponent — and this year at least a fur­ther 20 are expected to join them.

According to Enric Dalmau, pres­i­dent of the Cooperative of Cervià de les Garrigues, many more are on a wait­ing list for the bulbs, which come from Castilla-La-Mancha, in the cen­ter of Spain, a region famed for the qual­ity of its saf­fron.

A kilo of saf­fron sells for more than $8,000

Spanish exporters cur­rently pay about €3,000 – 3,500 ($4,08 – 4,760) a kilo to buy saf­fron in bulk, but sold pack­aged to shops it fetches €6,000 – 8,000 ($8,160 – 10,900) a kilo, Dalmau said.

Naturges Ponent sells 1g jars for €7.50 ($10).

However it takes about 150,000 flow­ers to make 1 kilo­gram of the spice and in 2013 the farm­ers pro­duced only about 3 kilo­gram of it.

“But we’re just start­ing,” said Dalmau. “In 2 – 3 years we expect to have a sig­nif­i­cant level of pro­duc­tion.”

“We’ve done the num­bers and it seems prof­itable.”

Olive oil coop­er­a­tive to serve as umbrella for Spain’s first saf­fron coop­er­a­tive

About 2,000 kilo­gram of saf­fron bulbs were planted last year, over just over a hectare in total, and if all goes well 6,000 kilo­grams more will be planted this year over three more hectares.

Most were planted apart, but some farm­ers placed bulbs among their almond trees and a few did so among their olive trees. It is too soon to com­pare the results as they will take at least a year to flower.

Dalmau said pro­duc­ers were form­ing what would be Spain’s first saf­fron coop­er­a­tive, which would run along­side the region’s exist­ing olive oil coop­er­a­tive.

“Our idea is to estab­lish the Les Garrigues brand and sell all our pro­duc­tion pack­aged rather than in bulk.”

Saffron har­vest stops just before olive har­vest starts

“In this zone in the mid­dle ages, every­one had saf­fron. I don’t know why they stopped but it used to be cul­ti­vated through­out the dis­trict,” he said.

“We’ve found that saf­fron adapts very well to the cli­mate and ter­rain here and what we are pro­duc­ing is of very high qual­ity.”

The tim­ing of the flower pick­ing fits in per­fectly, com­ing after the almond har­vest fin­ishes and before the olive sea­son starts.

“The har­vest lasts for three weeks in October and every day you have to pick the flow­ers very early in the morn­ing and in the after­noon extract the stig­mas from the cro­cus.

“There are three weeks that are very intense but it’s easy to main­tain dur­ing the year, Dalmau said.

“It is the world’s most expen­sive spice for one rea­son, because you can’t mech­a­nize pro­duc­tion, it’s all by hand, and very labo­ri­ous.”

Saffron pop­u­lar for baked and pas­try goods

Spain exports a lot of its saf­fron but there is also sig­nif­i­cant domes­tic demand. Paella is one of the most famous dishes requir­ing it but Dalmau said one of the biggest local uses for saf­fron is in pas­try and other baked goods, and desserts, such as meringues. There is also a saf­fron gin he rec­om­mends.

Olive oil prices down, pro­duc­tion up

Ex-mill prices for olive oil, mean­while, are falling. According to the POOLred price obser­va­tory, the aver­age for the week to January 5 was under €1.91/kg.

That was lower than the low­est weekly aver­age for 2013, which was €1.92/kg, in late December, and well under the €2.25/kg the Spanish Association of Municipalities of the Olive Tree (AEMO) says is the aver­age cost of pro­duc­tion.

But on the pos­i­tive side, after two drought-blighted ones, this olive sea­son is look­ing much bet­ter for Les Garrigues.

Dalmau said the har­vest is over the half-way mark and both the amount and qual­ity of olive oil — all of it arbe­quina — are so far very good.

Many of the new sea­son oils — and some local saf­fron as well — will be pre­sented at the Extra Virgin Olive Oil Exhibition being held January 17 – 19 in the town of Les Borges Blanques, the cap­i­tal of the Les Garrigues dis­trict.



Comments

More articles on: , ,