The Saffron Story

The Greek legend goes like this: a gorgeous mortal named Crocos fell hard for the nymph Smilax. Smilax rebuffed Crocos’ overtures and – poof! – Crocos became a lovely purple flower, Crocus sativus. Saffron is the dried stigmas of these flowers.

Prized from Italy to China for its pungent flavor and rich color, the painstaking process of picking and drying the stigmas make this spice extremely expensive.

For unknown reasons, crocuses grown in Spain produce the best saffron; the stigmas of Spanish crocuses are longer and contain higher levels of the pigments and oils that give saffron its distinctive flavor, color, and aroma.

Cultivation is concentrated in southern Castille and, to a lesser degree, in Aragon. The flowers peak for saffron production for only a week to ten days between October and November.

The stigmas must be harvested during that period or the crop will be lost. Mondadoras, (peelers) who are mostly women, strip away the petals and pluck out the stigmas by hand; an experienced mondadora goes through 10-12,000 flowers in a day. It takes 250,000 to 300,000 flowers to produce the 5 1/2 kg of stigmas required for 1 kg of saffron.