Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Derived from the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, it takes anything from 70,000 to 250,000 flowers to make one pound of saffron. The flowers must be individually handpicked in the autumn when fully open. Fortunately, only a little needs to be added to a dish to lend it colour and aroma and it’s the safranal, a volatile oil, which gives saffron much of its distinctive aroma that explodes when cooked.
Saffron growers in France
Saffron was grown in France for many years but the plants suffered from phylloxera which also destroyed many vineyards in the 19th century. It is though, making a comeback, and at around £75.00 (US$100) for 1 gram (roughly 150 hand-picked flowers), it’s a lucrative, if manually demanding, plant to cultivate and pick. Which is good news for the handful of canny entrepreneurs who are taking a leap of faith and investing time and money into reviving the lost art of saffron production in south west France.
Four years ago, Countess Alexandra Simonoff-Arpels (she prefers just plain old Alexandra) and her husband Eric started a saffron farm in Verteillac, Dordogne, also known as the Perigord region.
“We were watching a documentary on saffron growing in Iran, and having thought about a venture which would give Alexandra a means to fulfil her dream of working with the land and producing luxury gourmet products, we thought, we can do that , let’s take the chance to invest in saffron, ‘’ explains Eric.
They left behind their lives in Paris though, Parisian by birth, Eric, who says he was ‘adopted’ by the Périgord, still works there part time.
‘’We came up with the name L’Or des Anges (angel’s gold) because the Romans dubbed saffron ‘red gold’ and, with my love of wine,’’ says Alexandra, ‘’I knew that vintners have a poetic expression for the percentage of alcohol that is given off during the fermentation process. They call it ‘the angel’s share’ in the belief that the guardian angels, when a bit squiffy, will look over them and give a good vintage. It’s quite romantic.”
Saffron in jam
Saffron has long been a key ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine and in addition to selling the pure spice, Alex uses it in her range of homemade jams. These luxury confitures are created in her state of the art atelier, based on closely guarded family recipes from her maternal grandmother.
‘’I have a passion for jam,’’ says Alexandra, ‘’and I always work with 2 kgs of fruit, no more, as I want to make it à l’ancienne without pectin, just citron, the traditional way. Sometimes with a base of pear and apple, I add a little orange and lemon or dried sultanas, apricots, dates, plum, prunes, raisin de currant, walnuts, figs, and of course, some of our lovely saffron. I buy all my ingredients from local markets, I don’t add pectin, gelling agents or preservatives, and I cook with copper saucepans, this gives a unique taste of traditional jam,’’ she says.
As a connoisseur, everything that Alexandra makes is luxurious and quite fancy. Her repertoire of jams reflects a love of French literature as shown in her new range of haute couture Confiture des Anges such as the highly decadent Memoires de Vignes. I can only reveal that it involves burning off the alcohol from a bottle of Monbazillac wine, a lot of stirring, adding sugar, saffron and gold.
Saffron farm in France
The farm with its walls of sandstone and lauze roofs called Le Repaire near Verteillac, has been in Alexandra’s family for three hundred years. Set back off the beaten track in an ancient Périgordine hamlet, she watched as her grandparents grew every vegetable and fruit possible in their potager and crucially learnt about respect for the land which left a deep and lasting impression on Alexandra.
Just a few years after it was started, L’Or des Anges is making waves. The safranière is thriving and this year the couple have diversified and planted 1,200 truffle oak saplings and the power and prestige of the mighty truffle is as much as saffron.
Find out more at: lordesanges.com
By Susie Hunting, a freelance photographer and writer who lives in the Périgord Vert with her two dogs and loves everything about the rural way of life in France.