Rose of Saffron Festival
Story by Richard Frisbie
|any Mediterranean cuisines use the
delicious and colorful seasoning known as saffron in their regional
recipes. The bright red-orange threads of saffron are the dried
stigmas, or female portion, of the flower of Crocus sativus, the
autumn flowering, or saffron crocus. Each bulb can produce several
flowers, while each flower produces just 3 stigmas.
Saffron is commercially produced in many places in the
world, but most chefs prefer the superior quality saffron grown in central
Spain. There, it takes more than 100,000 flowers to produce a pound
of saffron. Since only a few strands, or about 1/8 tsp are used for
an average recipe, saffron is available retail in fractions of an ounce,
The red, highly aromatic saffron of "Castilla y
la Mancha" is the only one in the world with its own appellation,
or DO, (Dominacione de Origen) assuring it is the true Manchegan saffron.
On a recent tour of the growing fields in the town of Consuegra, I paid
3.5 euros ($5) for 1gram directly from the grower, Jesus Moreno. (1
g equals .035 oz) It was beautifully packaged in a fancy, wax-sealed
bottle, perfect for gifting.
The best time to harvest saffron is in mid-morning on
a sunny day, when the flowers just open and are still fresh. The morning
I was there it was overcast, with patches of rain alternating with brief
and elusive patches of sunshine. Just as I got to the fields it cleared
and the sun came blazing out. The crocus flowers, tightly closed in
purple buds, were slowly opening as Jesus and his wife Jaqu, bent at
the waist, inched down the plant rows harvesting saffron. They plucked
the whole flower, leaving barren fields in their wake as they slowly
filled their baskets.
Each day an established field will send up new flowers
where yesterdays were picked, and the process begins again. The whole
back breaking harvest is completed within 2-3 weeks. Then the stigmas
are separated from the flower and dried before packaging for retail
and wholesale distribution. When the saffron finally reaches your kitchen
it needs to be steeped in a bit of warm cooking liquid for 20 minutes
or so before being incorporated, liquid and all, into your recipe. The
longer it cooks the more flavor is extracted, so it is added early in
the cooking process.
Saffron also adds color, similar to turmeric, which
is sometimes recommended as an inexpensive alternative. Don't do it!
The intense flavor of saffron, which some describe as slightly bitter,
some sweet as honey, and some as redolent of the sea, cannot be duplicated
by tumeric. A recipe without saffron lacks the one ingredient that pulls
all the other flavors together. Use no substitute.
The Town of Consuegra is also famous for its windmills.
Seven of them ride the crest of the ridge that rises above the town,
surrounding the medieval castle that was once the stronghold of the
Knights of San Juan. Each of the mills is named, with one called Sancho,
after Don Quixote's sidekick. These are the best preserved windmills
of Spain, dating back to the time of Cervante's famous novel, and thus
find themselves on the modern Ruta de Quixote created by Spain's Paradores
chain of Hotels. It was while following that route that I found myself
Consuegra is an agricultural community, with a centuries-long
history of growing wheat. That's why there are so many windmills. They
were used to grind the grain. Today the fully operational mills are
only used ceremoniously during the harvest festival known as "Festival
de la Rosa del Azafrán" or Rose of Saffron.
The windmills are the original "green" machines.
The ancient wooden cogs and wheels are turned by the wind moving the
exterior sails. They, in turn, rotate the millstones that grind the
grain, which is manually carried up the winding staircase on the back
of the miller. He pours it into the top of the mill to work its way
down, ground, as flour. It's a centuries old design that still works
today. After the grain is ground into flour it is sold in small bags
to commemorate the Rose of Saffron Festival.
Traditionally, when the people of Consuegra finished
the harvests, the festival began. In modern times that translates to
the last weekend of October. It is a quaint, folkloric festival where
the connection to Don Quiote is strong. The windmill called "Sancho"
is used to grind the wheat, and a local beauty is crowned "Dulcinea",
the name of Quixote's girlfriend. There is a contest in the village
square where the fastest hands compete to remove the saffron threads
from the flowers, and everyone participates wearing the traditional
clothes of their village. There is also a procession of the masked "Gigantes
y Cabezudos" ("giants and big-heads"), but the highlight
of the festival is the culinary competition. This is when the townsfolk
prepare their best recipes using saffron. The whole community turns
out to taste them.
It was fun to be there for the food and the festivities,
but it was most important to be in the fields watching the harvesting
process, and being able to purchase some certified Manchegan saffron
to create my own gastronomic feast when I got home - paella!
The making of Paella - http://food.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474977152183
I NEED SPAIN: http://www.tourspain.es
The official Paradores Don Quixote route: http://tinyurl.com/rutadequixote
Air Europa http://www.aireuropa.com
Mancha: The Land of Don Quixote and Caballeros; Madrid
of Madrid; Madrid
and the Art of Armor; Tossa
de Mar, Spain;
Valencia, Spain; Galicia,