French saffron – the spice earning its rightful place in our foods19-01-2017
Though few French people are aware, for centuries France was a significant saffron producer and exporter.
For the last thirty years, keen saffron enthusiasts have been successfully breathing new life into its production, particularly through its use in cooking. France is the world’s third biggest exporter. And is well known for the high quality of its saffron.
While saffron cultivation originated in Kashmir, the “red gold” arrived in France through trading with other continents. The first saffron bulbs or “corms” were introduced back in the Middle Ages. Saffron cultivation was officially recognised towards the end of the 17th century. Production in France centres around Gatinais and it was here that production was reintroduced in the 80s. Thanks to a group of producers who decided to relaunch the traditional crop.
“In 1987, saffron farmers in Gatinais purchased 50,000 bulbs from Kashmir and we are still using this initial stock”, explains Myriam Duteil, just one of some 150 saffron producers across France.
What is saffron?
First there is the saffron flower, which is bright crimson and often mistaken for a poppy. Each flower bears 3 stigmas, each the distal end of the carpal, and when dried, the stigma or “threads” provide the coveted saffron spice.
French saffron cultivation: 150,000 flowers for one kilo of fresh threads
Saffron is grown in different regions across France. Generally considered to be a relatively simple process, it basically involves purchasing the corms, planting them and harvesting the “red gold” or stigma threads. The real challenge is the manpower required at harvest time, when some 150,000 crocus sativus flowers or “crocus flowers” have to be picked to make a 1kg of fresh stigma, while it takes 5kg of stigma threads to make 1kg of dried saffron for use in cooking.
At the heart of Normandy saffron
Myriam Duteil previously worked in TV and films before a complete change of career path in 2012.
“I was at an agricultural fair and was surprised to discover a competition for saffron. This got me thinking and I decided I wanted to be part of its production,” she told us.
This keen cook consequently left Paris to settle in the area of Gauville in Normandy, where she took over Saffron Normand farm. With 6ha of workable land, Myriam Duteil introduced organically-grown saffron. Also, in 2015, she harvested her first crop and her first commercial foray. The silty and sandy soils yielded around 700g of red gold.
Her saffron is sold in a number of formats. Saffron threads are available on her website as well as an extensive range of saffron-based products including mustard, pate de fruits, cider vinegar, pain d’epice, jam, shortbread biscuits and cordials.
The 2016 harvest was even bigger, and will set Saffron Normand well on its way to seeing a new phase in its commercial development. At the time of writing, the saffron displays a butter character. And is still a long way from acquiring its floral notes, though she will soon be able to diffuse its spicy aromas.
This year, as well as the farm shop, selling locally, through short supply chains and stock sold on consignment in small retailers, she will soon invest in new projects.
“I produce enough to be able to approach the restaurant sector. Not just chefs, but other professionals in food-related industries”, she explains.
And she is not short of ideas. Saffron butter, saffron soup and listings in delicatessens in France and abroad. “In terms of exports, I would like to launch with the United States, which is a country I know well having lived there. One of my ambitions would be for my saffron to be sold in District, in New York,” reveals Myriam Duteil. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that she will achieve her goal one day. A surge of interest in spices is a significant trend, associated with a general awareness of their positive benefits to our health and diet. And as a result of France’s skilled expertise in saffron selection and drying, France is set to see its market share increase year on year.
“Which explains why French saffron has always been regarded as of the finest quality, and why France is the world’s third largest exporter of saffron, even though we are just a small producer”.
Recipe: Scallops and creamy saffron sauce (serves 6)
50g salted butter
50cl single cream
0.1g saffron or 60 threads
20cl dry white wine
20cl fish stock
The day before cooking, infuse the saffron in the single cream and set to one side. Open the scallop shells and remove the surrounding sack and beard leaving only the white flesh. You can always ask your fishmonger to do this for you. Pat dry and arrange the scallops on a flat dish in a cool place. Peel and finely chop the shallots and sweat in a frying pan with a knob of butter and olive oil. Deglaze the pan with 20cl of white wine and reduce, then deglaze again with 20cl of cold fish stock and reduce once more. Add the cream and saffron infusion and heat gently. Meanwhile, place a knob of butter and a dash of olive oil into a hot frying pan. When the butter starts to sizzle, briefly sear the scallops on each side for 50 seconds. Season before serving with freshly ground mixed pepper berries and fleur de sel.
Warm the dishes and add a small ladle of saffron sauce and 3 scallops into each one. Season and serve immediately with a few sprigs of chervil or bean sprouts.