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.
"My parents, who were poor, built their house on what they harvested every year, when they stopped work for a week to pick saffron," Moreno said.
Besides Paella, saffron is also used to cook pork and bean stews such as "fabada" and "olla podrida," or fish stew "zarzuela" and is popular in Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine.
As recently as 20 years ago, some 60 percent of La Mancha families grew saffron, but many left their plots to work in Spain's construction sector which boomed for more than a decade.
The boom turned to bust in late 2007 and threw Spain into a deep recession from which it is still struggling to emerge. Now La Mancha is studded with unoccupied or unfinished buildings as well as its archetypal windmills.
Jesus Moreno, Antonia's brother and a plasterer by trade said that the good times persuaded people to gradually leave planting in the hope of earning easy money.
"Many in the region worked on building sites, for good wages and with no lack of work until a couple of years ago," he said.
"Now there's no work in building, many would like to fall back on saffron, but there are scarcely any seeds and the ground work takes several years."
After Lozano's family pick saffron flowers, his 75-year-old father and local women deftly separate the stems, one by one. The stems are tipped into a sieve and dried on an ancient stove, turning the reddish-purple stems a blood red color.
"The tradition was dying out a few years ago," said Demetria Diaz, a neighbor of the Lozano family.
"But in the crisis it now seems to be making a comeback and my 11-year-old daughter asks to help."
Writing by Martin Roberts, additional reporting by Jose Rodriguez, editing by Paul Casciato