15 November 2013

A Day in Paradise
(Saffron paradise that is...)

There is always something new to discover about life in Morocco - and today is no exception.

Let me back-peddle a bit here... Last April at a charity auction, much to my dismay, my slightly-inebriated husband placed a bid to spend 2 nights full-board at a saffron farm in the Ourika Valley, some 20 minutes away from where we presently live. Now not only is this located just down the road from us but I must admit that my initial thoughts were this: 'Why would anyone want to visit a saffron farm, much less stay there?'

Well, I now stand corrected! It is at 7.30 am this morning that we make our way along the quiet country roads to the afore-mentioned saffron farm, by invitation of the enterprising owner, Christine, to whom we've spoken several times recently to try and arrange our weekend with her - but somehow our stay has never materialised due to illness on our part or lack of availability at the farm. Because of the amount of work undertaken during harvest time, we cannot stay this time either, but, as those of you who follow this blog will know, I love to take photographs, so the kind invitation to come and see the saffron harvest just for the morning is just too good to miss! So here we are, armed with cameras, at this beautiful but early hour of the morning, making our way to Le Paradis du Safran.

The clue is in the name - 'Paradise' is an apt description. Le Paradis du Safran is located 3km off the main road on a piste surrounded by fertile agricultural land and a few houses dotted here and there. A friendly shepherd waves and greets us as we try to avoid his sheep wandering aimlessly in the middle of the piste, a man on a donkey laden with goods moves aside so we can manouevre the car past him, children wearing the ubiquitous white coats which are the standard school uniform in Morocco stare at us Europeans and a smile slowly forms on one girl's face. All are standard features of a drive through Moroccan countryside.

This way...

We arrive at the gates and are greeted by Christine along with her two large beldi (country) dogs who jump up at us in excitement - a lovely welcome. Then the tour begins. We think we are visiting to see the saffron harvest but, before we even reach this area of the land, Christine takes us for a walk to show us the amazing abundance of exotic fruit trees and herbs she has growing in her 2.5 hectares of land - papaya, mangoes, lemon trees, kaki fruit, lavender, thyme, rosemary, verbena - not to mention rows upon rows of the sweetest smelling roses. It seems that anything can be grown in Morocco due to the ideal climate and fertile land - added to a bit of know-how of course. As we meander, she cuts bits off for us to sniff and try to identify and places them in a bag for us to bring home. Her passion for her crop shines through as she gives us information about each plant, tree and herb. It is a joy to spend time with her in this beautiful place.

Roses, fruit trees and herbs

Soon we reach the main plot of land where the crocuses are being collected for harvest by approximately 20 workers, all local women and girls, who work for 3-4 hours then tuck into a fabulous breakfast lovingly prepared for them before proceeding to extract the saffron threads from the flowers they have collected this morning. It is a hard job physically, each woman bent double as she plucks the crocuses from the ground and places them in her basket.  Hats and scarves are worn to shield their eyes from the harsh heat of the sun.

The beautiful setting with rows of crocuses

Stunning crocuses growing in a cluster

The crocuses are planted in rows and each crocus bulb can bear up to four flowers. Each of those flowers contains three vivid crimson stigma - these are the saffron threads which, once dried, are quite literally worth their weight in gold. Christine tells us she plants 600,000 bulbs weighing approximately 6 tons....and approximately 200,000 flowers are needed to obtain 1kg of saffron. That's an awful lot of crocus-picking and stigma-gathering that needs to be carried out in order to have enough saffron threads to form a decent weight to be sold. No wonder saffron is so expensive to buy!

Picking the crocuses

Hard at work

Signs around the land let visitors know what is what

The work of harvesting the crocuses takes place over the course of 3 weeks in November each year, so we are very fortunate to be able to see it for ourselves. As we watch them picking the crocuses the girls/young women break into song, an old Berber song we are told, though nobody seems to know what they are singing about. It is a cheerful sound to accompany their hard work. Here's a short video:

Once collected, the individual baskets of crocuses are all emptied into larger baskets which are then carried to another group of girls who sit around a table on low stools and tenderly extract the individual strands of saffron, placing them in bowls.

Christine gathers crocuses into a bigger basket

These baskets are very heavy once full!

Girls painstakingly remove the stigma from each crocus

The colour of the saffron is amazing - Christine only sells the very best and her saffron has been classified as of the highest standard. She shows us how the crimson red saffron threads stain the hand yellow - and tells us to beware the people in the souqs (markets) who sell the saffron that stains the hand red as this shows it is not pure but has been mixed with other substances such as hair, bits of meat and colouring - yuk!

The saffron threads are placed in bowls

Only the best saffron is produced

All too soon it is time to leave...but of course not without first purchasing some of the genuine article and some small gifts from the boutique. We are sad to be leaving as we have thoroughly enjoyed our morning here. But we will be back - we still have our 2-night voucher to use here - and now we can't wait to return. Thank you so much Christine for welcoming us to your beautiful Saffron Paradise!