When you think of saffron, you may not necessarily think of Normandy, or even France at that! But did you know that there are several saffron farms in the region? For the last last thirty years, saffron enthusiasts in Normandy have been breathing new life into saffron production. I visited the Domaine de Gauville organic saffron farm in October to find out more about the world’s most expensive spice…
‘In 1987, saffron farmers in Gatinais purchased 50,000 bulbs from Kashmir and we are still using this original stock’, explains Myriam Duteil, owner of the Domaine de Gauville.
Despite hailing from a family of farmers, Myriam is no ordinary agricultural producer. Prior to buying the Domaine de Gauville, she worked in TV production in Paris, devising and running France’s main food channel, Food TV. It was only six years ago that she decided to pursue a completely different career.
‘Saffron is often thought of as exotic; in fact, most of the world’s saffron comes from Iran,’ Myriam explains. ‘However, ideally it needs cool, moist conditions to grow well. The optimum temperature is around 15°C, so Normandy’s the perfect place to grow it.’
Myriam purchased 15 acres of land near Brionne in Normandy in 2012, and planted 21,000 bulbs across three acres of it. She reaped her first saffron harvest in 2015, around 700g, and ever since has worked hard on expanding the area she cultivates. Three years later, we are here to help her with her third harvest, and after a quick demo, I set about picking the crocuses, taking care not to harm the three all-important red stamens, before placing them in a basket. Around me, several volunteers have already been picking for over an hour, and their baskets brim with the delicate purple flowers.
‘The harvest lasts around four weeks, usually in October’, says Myriam. ‘We pick in the morning, before the flowers open. A skilled picker can collect 1000 flowers in an hour, which produces 5kg of saffron.’
I leave the picking to the experts and retire indoors to see the next stage of the process. Myriam’s mother sits at the kitchen table, with an array of flowers on one side, and a tray of bright red saffron strands on the other. The speed with which she works is staggering.
‘A kilogram of saffron is worth £25,000, and here at the Domaine de Gauville we produce around 700g a year,’ Myriam tells me, deftly removing the three stamens and laying them carefully on the tray. ‘Saffron was used by so many people before the French Revolution when production in France was around 30 tonnes a year, but now that production here is only 150kg a year, it is mainly used by chefs or in seasonal food for Christmas, particularly in Normandy.’
Myriam’s mother opens a jar of dried saffron strands and passes it to me to inspect. The smell emanating from the jar is delicious.
‘When buying saffron, always look for deep red strands like these,’ advises Myriam. ‘If it looks brown or yellow in hue, it is either old or has been dried for too long, so it will have no flavour.’
Myriam sells her saffron to local chefs, as well as running a popular farm shop both at the Domaine de Gauville and at local farmers’ markets. The saffron is sold both in its pure form as well as in jam, caramel spread, biscuits, mustard, desserts and vinegar.
‘Whether you’re using saffron for risotto, paella, apple cake or even ice cream, it’s so versatile,’ Myriam says, scooping a generous amount of yellow ice cream into a bowl for me. ‘A single strand is perfect for a tea infusion, then I’d recommend three strands per person in a sweet dish, six per person in a savoury dish, and nine per person in a seafood dish. Just remember to soak the dried saffron the night before you use it, to rehydrate it and release the flavour.’
The saffron ice cream is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted – rich, intensely creamy and, dare I say, uplifting.
‘It’s the Normandy cream, there’s nothing like it,’ laughs Myriam. ‘But also, saffron is not only delicious; it’s proven to have mood-lifting benefits. It is considered the “spice of happiness” in traditional Eastern medicine, and a recent Iranian study suggested that saffron can even have the same effects as anti-depressants.’
So there you have it, saffron that’s organic, delicious AND scientifically proven to put you in a great mood. What’s not to love?
For more information on the Domaine de Gauville organic saffron farm, visit www.domainedegauville.fr (website in French only). For more information on food and drink in Normandy, visit the Normandy Tourism website.
All photos and text © F. Lambert / Normandy Tourism