How quickly can you make saffron? That is to say, how quickly can you detach the stigma from the purple crocus flower? There’s a competition to find the fastest person every year at La Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafran, the saffron festival that is held each year in Consuegra in the last week of October.
Consuegra is in La Mancha region, not far from Toledo, Spain. There on the high plateau where traditional windmills are a distinctive feature of the landscape, most of the world’s saffron is cultivated. The festival timing coincides with the harvest.
It is the world’s most expensive spice, and also one of the more improbable food products. The flower, crocus sativa, opens up in October, and when it does, it must be gathered quickly. After the flowers have been picked by hand the women remove the orange-red stigma from the centre of the flower. That process is known as monda. There are great piles of the light stigma, with the tiny threads springing from the centre of the flower. They are then roasted ensuring they keey. The roasting removes the water content and further dries them out. It takes around 200 flowers to yield one single gram of saffron. In commercial terms the quicker this process can be completed the better, and this search for efficiency is one of the reasons behind the festival competitions.
The Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafran, unlike many food festivals, does not date back for centuries. It began in 1963 as a way of recognising and celebrating the importance of saffron in the culture and gastronomy of the area, and latter as a tourist event. Over the years it has grown considerably. Last year it ran from the 20th to 29th of October, with most events taking place on the second weekend.
One of its most popular features is the choice of the festival queen or princess. She is known as the Dulcinea, in honour of Don Quixote’s great love. Don Quixote came from La Mancha, and the white windmills he fought are still visible today. The Fiesta is now also a national folklore festival, including music and dancing. The Dulcinea and her maids of honour are young women chosen to represent the flower of Machegan beauty.
Saffron came to La Mancha thousands of years ago, probably first with the Romans. But it was the Arabs, who conquered the Iberian peninsula in the 8th century, who worked to established it as a argricultural staple for the region. The name, saffron – azafran in Spanish – is originally Arabic. It has multiple uses – as medicine, as a dye, and in cooking often as an essential ingredient in most paellas, providing colour and flavour.
The festival itself has a number of sections. There is the separation of the stigma from the flower, a competition that runs over a numbers of days, since the winners of the earlier stages proceed to the finals, and then a national competition.
There is also the Windmill of Peace, based around a restored old mill known as Sancho (after Don Quixote’s companion). Its job during the festival is to mill flour in an act of peace. The grain comes from many places, and the milling is dedicated to those who have contributed to harmony and tolerance. Because the grain comes from numerous locations, the resulting flour suggests that all humans are equal. While the grain is ground, there is singing and dancing among the windmills.
Gastronomy is also a key part of the festival, with a devotion to the cooking and tasting of local dishes. The food festival is held on D. Jose Ortega e Munilla Street, and includes a peasant dish made with stale bread, meat, and olive oil, known as migas. More complicated dishes, such as lamb stews and venison, are also on offer.
Importantly the festival also includes a focus on local folklore aimed to ensure it's cultural future. Uncertainty, however, on how long the saffron festival can continue exists due to threats from cheaper foriengn producers and the time consuyming nature of its harvest.
During series 5 on Food Lovers' Guide to Australia Maeve O'Meara spoke to some Australian saffron farmers: