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GASTRONOMY

Saffron, rural Spain’s crisis-beating spice

On the arid, wind-swept plateau of central Spain, saffron producers are reaping the benefits of a return to favour of the precious spice introduced by Arabs in the Middle Ages.

Saffron, rural Spain's crisis-beating spice
Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo / AFP

After a lull in production due to the high cost of growing saffron in Spain, farmers are now back in business as customers have started seeking quality over lower prices.

Sitting around three long tables at the Molineta company in Minaya, a 1,600-strong village 200 kilometres (124 miles) southeast of Madrid, elderly ladies extract bright red stigmas from violet saffron crocuses that will subsequently be dried and sold off.

Every day during the autumn harvest, Segunda Gascon, 78, blackens her fingers as she works the fragrant petals, a gesture she has practiced again and again since 1964 when she was given a small batch of seedlings for her wedding.


Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo / AFP

She is part of a group of around 50 people – many of them retired – who are paid to help out at this time of year in the small village of the Castilla-La Mancha region.

Nearby Dolores Navarro, 83, sings a folk song as she works: “The saffron rose is a fragrant flower, that grows at sunrise and dies at sunset.”

She remembers the men who would come to the village in the 1960s to buy the spice “at a high price.”

All by hand

But then came the modernisation of agriculture, which led to a drop in many food prices.

Saffron though, which relies on intensive manual labour, remained expensive and Spanish producers were unable to keep up.

From more than 100 tonnes a year at the start of the 20th century, Spanish production dropped over the decades to reach just 1.9 tonnes in 2014, the last official figure.


Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo / AFP

By comparison Iran – where the workforce is cheaper and the selection of stigmas less strict – says 93 percent of worldwide saffron production came from the country in 2015, at 350 tonnes.

Spain, Morocco and Kashmir shared what was left. “In the 1980s, saffron was ruinous,” says Molineta founder Juan Antonio Ortiz, a 66-year-old farmer.

Standing by his field, he keeps an eye on the basket-carrying Bulgarian, Senegalese and Malian day labourers, who have been picking still-closed flowers since daybreak and are paid €5.20 a kilo.

Unlike others, Ortiz decided not to abandon his precious flowers, and it eventually paid off.

His 10 hectares (25 acres) of saffron now earn his family “around 500 euros per kilo,” which comes to around €50,000 a year.

“I held on because I always liked growing this,” he said.    

“I was barely walking and I was already in the saffron plots with my mother picking the flowers.”


Molineta de Minaya saffron company owners Mari Angeles Serrano (L) and Jose Antonio OrtizPhoto: Gonzalo Arroyo / AFP

At the turn of the century, Ortiz and his wife Maria Angeles bet on quality to broaden their production, which now comes complete with a protected designation of origin (PDO) label recognised by the European Union.

They sell their saffron to distributors from Spain, the United States, European countries and even the United Arab Emirates.

'Threads of gold'

Once Maria Angeles has sorted through the stigmas with tweezers, and dried them on a silk canvas above a small fire, she puts them in small plastic bags to wait for experts who control their composition to give them their PDO.  

They will then be able to sell the saffron threads with their distinctive aroma.

The price? Four euros per gramme.    

Spanish saffron is “among the best of anywhere,” says Pat Heslop-Harrison, professor of agricultural biology at Britain's Leicester University.    

“Castilla-La Mancha has the perfect conditions,” he adds, pointing to “the types of soil, climate, how it is harvested and dried.”  

That fact has not gone unnoticed among Spain's legion of chefs.


Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo / AFP

“In Spain, we treat it as if it were threads of gold,” says Daniel Lasa, chef at Spain's Michelin-starred Mugaritz restaurant.  

“La Mancha's saffron is much clearer, less bitter” than that of Iran, he adds.

He prefers using the spice for soups and gelatines, and to accompany seafood.  

In the region around Minaya, Spain's devastating economic crisis, which erupted in 2008, pushed many to return to growing what is known as “red gold.”    

There are now 267 producers of saffron with the PDO label alone in Spain.  

Just 100 kilometres away in Toledo province where unemployment is sky-high, small-scale producers are on the rise, grouping themselves into cooperatives.    

And in Minaya, the Ortiz family is no longer alone. Antonio Garcia Filoso, a 36-year-old farmer, started planting saffron two years ago, and produced three kilogrammes last year.

 By  AFP's Adrien Vicente 

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FOOD & DRINK

Did Spain make Coca-Cola before the US?

Could Kola-Coca, the drink produced in a small Valencian village, have been the inspiration for the world-famous soft drink, Coca-Cola?

Did Spain make Coca-Cola before the US?

Coca-Cola, or coke as it is often referred to, has become one of the most popular drinks around the world since it was invented in 1886 in the United States. It has also become the drink most synonymous with American culture and the secret formula has been patented there too. 

Despite this, in the small town of Aielo de Malferit almost 140 years ago, three partners, Enrique Ortiz, Ricardo Sanz and Bautista Aparici, set up a distillery, which later went on to supply drinks to Queen María Cristina, who was married to King Alfonso XII, and the rest of the royal household. 

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Among the drinks that they created, the most popular by far was the ‘Jarabe Superior de Kola-Coca‘. It was made from kola nuts and coca leaves from Peru, and was dubbed by locals as ‘Heavenly Anise’.

The drink became so successful and popular that in 1885, one of the three founders, Bautista Aparici, travelled to the US to promote it and present the product to consumers in Philadelphia. 

He then returned to Spain, but a year later in 1886 in Atlanta, the pharmacist John Stith Pemberton invented the famous Coca-Cola. Sound familiar?

Whether this was a coincidence or not is open to interpretation, but what is even more interesting, other than the similar name, is that the drink contained basically the same ingredients as the Spanish Kola-Coca too. 

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When it was first created, the basic ingredients of Coca-Cola were just coca leaves, cola nuts and soda water, the same recipe that was made in Aielo in Valencia, except, they used cold water from the region, instead of soda water.

While Coca-Cola went from strength to strength and finally achieved world domination, the distillery in Valencia went on to produce other drinks. 

Then in the mid-1950s, Kola-Coca disappeared from sale when it is said, that representatives from the Coca-Cola company visited the Aielo factory to buy the patent for the ‘heavenly anise’ drink. 

Although there is no material evidence of this patent ever exchanging hands, it’s interesting to think the inspiration for this most American of drinks could have originated in a small village in Spain.

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