Saffron luring Spanish workers back to the land

Thu Nov 4, 2010 9:30am EDT
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By Carlos Ruano

CONSUEGRA, Spain (Reuters) - Saffron has always provided the subtle flavor to Spain's national rice dish paella and colored the central plains with a purple hue for centuries.

Now in the 21st century soaring prices have made harvesting the delicate stem of the saffron flower from which the spice is made a backstop for professionals, laborers and the unemployed in the La Mancha region hit by the global financial crisis.

"Hereabouts we say: Saffron is La Mancha's gold, and the poor man's piggy bank," said Antonia Moreno, one of almost 4 million people now out of work in Spain and a champion hand at separating the prized stems from saffron flowers.

Wholesale prices for Spanish saffron are at historic highs, said Javier Guerrero, manager of the Spanish Saffron Export Company, up more than 300 euros ($421) per one kg (2.2 lb) since the last harvest, to around 3,500 euros per kg partly due to a U.S. ban on saffron imports from Iran.

Moreno is a member of Spanish teacher Vicente Lozano's extended family, who drop everything for a week each autumn to painstakingly pick more than a million saffron stems from their tiny plot in the central Spanish region where the fictional Don Quijote tilted at windmills.

"We sell about half of the saffron we pick to wholesalers," Lozano said, while out picking near the village of Consuegra, 130 km (81 miles) south of Madrid. "We package the other half with a denomination of origin to sell to retailers."

It takes about 400,000 stems to make up one kg of saffron, although only a few fragrant threads are needed to add that typically tasty yellow tinge to traditional paella.

Moreno said profits from the harvest, which once loomed much larger in the lives of locals, still help with life's extras.   Continued...