‘The butcher is in the square, with meat and dry sausages of the highest quality and best market price. The butcher is in the square, with meat, eggs, yoghurts, all first quality produce…’
The public announcement blares out through the village loudspeakers, reaching the courtyard of Casa Churi. There, Daniel, Quico and Raúl have donned their jackets and hats, adjusted their bike seats and are now placing a wicker basket each on the pannier rack of their respective two-wheelers.
The lads, for the fifth consecutive morning, saddle up and ride out of the village, along a dirt road which eventually takes them to a plot of land, two kilometres west. The parcel, in full view after ascending a short slope, boasts randomly scattered purple flowers, still closed up in anticipation of the sun. The riders give the rectangular field a quick appraisal before resting their bikes on the surrounding dew-covered grass. They grab the baskets and line up next to each other, as if readying for a showdown. It is a chilly morning in late October, but they are looking forward to the demanding physical work ahead.
‘The crocus are in full bloom, these next few days will yield the most saffron,’ Daniel exhorts.
The three need little motivation to begin, and proceed to harvest the crocus flowers, handpicking each individually. As the flowers are not open this is done at a faster pace, with the guys showing their adeptness, leaning over and culling the arbitrarily growing flowers before placing them in their baskets, tilted against the ground with the other hand. They are fully aware that these are the days when the two thousand square metres will give the most flowers before reaching a point of maximum splendour, known as florada, which gradually tails off until there are no more flowers left to harvest, fifteen to twenty days after the first signs of bloom.
Raúl, who was first to arrive at the village to monitor the allotment, speeds in front, whilst Quico and Daniel, who travelled south from Zaragoza as soon as Raúl noticed the efflorescence, work at a slower pace. Regardless of the dissimilar techniques, the trio pick in their hundreds whilst joking, chatting or enjoying the silence of the empty landscape. By the time the task is completed an hour later, their jumpers have come off, their right thumbs and index fingers are stained in dark purple and they are sat on the drying grass, drinking from a wineskin.
The sun is now shining on the brown and yellow cereal fields which engulf the small village of Bañón, perfectly visible from the grove. The community of under two hundred inhabitants illustrates the chronic depopulation afflicting Jiloca county, a common malady faced by the vast rural geography of the province of Teruel, and Aragón as a whole. Bañón, at 1,141 metres of altitude, shares scenery with immense plains and isolated ranges, in a land associated with intensive pig farming, agriculture, and tough, freezing dry winters. Yet despite the setting, the three urbanites, enjoying a brief break before returning to Bañón, somehow do not look out of place, as if having earned their right to be there. The thirty-somethings are lifelong friends, politically engaged and sharing of similar values. So it’s captivating to learn how this landscape brought them even closer.
‘Saffron is shrouded in an aura of mystery. A very delicate flower, you pick it, and then you have to remove the stigmas which you then roast. You are told about this when you are little and you become fascinated. I recall seeing my great grandfather plucking when I was four.’ Daniel, blonde, sporting glasses and a moustache, is the first to talk. He is a technical agricultural engineer, and runs an agroecological business in Zaragoza to promote local market garden consumption. His family hails from Bañón and he lit the fuse on the project. ‘Over time you give thought to the idea that it would be great to revive it, for no one had been growing it for decades. So I planted a little to learn and as a personal aspiration of wanting to rediscover an abandoned tradition which my family had practiced all its life.’
He harvested eighty squared metres in one of his grandfather’s orchards and invited his two friends to come along.
‘We were so amazed by this flower that over time we thought that it could become a source of self-employment,’ Quico interjects. Tall, with curly dark hair, and initially the most extrovert of the team, he runs a bicycle restoration and repair shop in Zaragoza. He instigated the idea that saffron could bring them financial support, as it once did for locals. They planted crocus bulbs manually on this larger plot of land in 2014, and the first harvest yielded 350 grams of saffron a year later, all of which was sold by word of mouth.
But monetary aspects apart, cultivating saffron also feels like a personal endeavour to rediscover the memories of the people for whom it constituted a lifestyle in Bañón and beyond. A way of sharing the same language and experiences with them.
‘We are doing everything in the traditional way, retrieving the same tools that my family used. My grandparents, parents and uncles have grown saffron and know exactly what needs doing. And some village elders as well. They have all taught us how the tasks should be carried out,’ Daniel explains.
Raúl, who has been smoking calmly up to now, is keen to stress this point.
‘The great thing of what Daniel is saying is that we are bringing a heritage activity back to life, by doing it all again. It’s not the same as writing a book about saffron, we are making it real.’ Raúl is a graphic artist and a bike polo enthusiast who helped establish its practice in their home town. He also continues to fight for the transformation of Zaragoza into a bike friendly city. He fumbles with his bushy moustache and sideburns before adding: ‘Yes, we want to earn a living, but as we make it happen we are also honouring the product, the region and its culture.’
The morning is pushing through and there is much left to do. The three grab their bikes and begin the short ride back, each with a brimming basket. The next morning the field will be ready for collection again.
Casa Churi, the ramshackle old house which they are using as their headquarters, is slowly becoming a charming and practical living space, with its large front patio acting as the perfect spot for the next laborious activity. Raúl and Quico are sitting next to a white rectangular table where Daniel pours and spreads the contents of the wicker baskets. The mountain of cup-shaped flowers must now undergo the esbrine, the manual unblading or plucking of the three red stigmas borne at their centre. The sun is beaming down on the garden, and this helps dry the flowers, making the enterprise less arduous, but no less monotonous. The aim is to obtain the whole of each strand, and in similar size. After some banter, and once into full rhythm, Daniel is only too happy to talk about the history of saffron in the area.
‘In this county, saffron was nothing like it is now. The figures speak for themselves. Back in 1910 Teruel produced thirty-six tonnes of saffron, compared to the twenty-six kilos expected this harvest,’ he says, as his fingers become tinged in orange. ‘Saffron grew primarily from here all the way down the valley. Half of the village would head down to the saffron fields.’ By valley he refers to the land leading to Monreal del Campo, the saffron capital of the region which boasts a museum on the product. ‘A lot of manual labour was needed in those days, as people would walk to the fields at night for an hour and a half in order to start picking at dawn, and horses would return loaded with basketfuls. There would even be work for the highland villagers, which were given flowers to pluck for days on end. Children also had to pick saffron before heading to school, in the bitterly cold days of back then. Now with climate change we are picking at eight in the morning sometimes in short sleeves,’ he describes, without glancing away from the stigmas he removes.
Clearly, saffron played a key role for many families in the vicinity. Most, if not all, owned a little to serve as supplement to the domestic economy thus allowing them to breathe a little easier. It boosted the local economy in more ways than one, allowing their following generation to study at university and farmers to buy tractors.
The three pairs of hands remain unfazed by the sheer number of flowers left to pluck. Petals pile up on the ground, and bumblebees, flies and other insects lap up the pollen paradise unfolding before them.
‘It was a gradual demise in Jiloca and the province as a whole,’ Daniel continues, revealing the reasons which led to the almost complete disappearance of saffron. ‘It is very labour intensive, therefore, as people left for the city in search of work, it no longer paid off to grow it.’
Raúl, whose hands boast a palette of brown, orange and the yellow of the stamens, provides the logical conclusion which people came to in the past.
‘Families were very large back then, it was normal to have five children or more. All those hands, if they are no longer there, you don’t even start to consider it. It was cultivated whilst population size remained stable.’
Indeed, in Daniel’s family there were up to ten people helping, but planting stopped when this was no longer the case.
As the two discuss the local saffron history, Quico is busy cooking a lentil stew seasoned with their very own saffron from the previous year, which is toasted slightly before incorporating it to the pot. The food is washed down with wine from a porrón, the traditional glass pitcher, but the saffron’s bitter fragrance is still perceptible. Historically used as a condiment, it is easy to imagine how it was also used as a scent, dye or even medicine.
Late in the afternoon the small piles of red filaments build up on the table, and it becomes necessary to preserve them on plates under a cloth to dry before roasting. The daylight will give in soon to a chilly night, and as the plucking will have to be completed indoors, Daniel decides to operate the gloria, an ancient heating system still present in many old homes in Aragón and Castille. He opens a firebox in the courtyard and places wood, which he then sets alight, and the warm exhaust starts to travel down a duct running under the living room of the house. The interior of the building will be warm for many hours thanks to this rudimentary underfloor heating. Tiredness sets in, so the three decide to combat the tedium by singing La Ronda de Boltaña tunes. As folk group, social movement, and defenders of Aragonese roots and nature, their songs fit proceedings.
‘People chatted and sang whilst plucking,’ Daniel explains. ‘There were canticles and jotas on saffron. After all, it took so many hours there was time for everything. To get bored, to sing, to laugh, even to cry at the sight of all the saffron left!’
It is night time and Daniel is in the kitchen stoking the fireplace with a pair of bellows. He had started roasting the saffron threads in the courtyard, but as darkness set in, opted to do the last of today’s batches indoors. Quico and Raúl are plucking away on the kitchen table, content in the warmth of the room, chatting all things bike related.
Roasting is the key step to safeguard the spice and produce the highest quality product, and the process, for the time being at least, falls solely on Daniel. He has been taught by various people, including members of AZAJI, the Association of Jiloca Saffron Producers, which in recent times has mounted a strategy to revive saffron production, promote the product, and obtain grants and qualified designation of origin status from local government. Most people are only aware of La Mancha saffron, therefore local growers and producers have decided to pull in the same direction, hoping for results to show.
Daniel puts some ember in a clay earthenware called terrizo, and with the heat source now all set, places a ciazo, a traditional utensil made of a wooden body and a silk cloth, on top. The stigmas, having been touched as little as possible, are spread over the fabric, and Daniel monitors their development on the low heat. With a pair of tweezers, he pulls out impurities, moves threads and checks their transformation. Complete focus is required, as each day the moisture can be different, affecting the speed at which the filaments dry. Experience is vital, and Daniel is learning fast. He uses a second ciazo to turn the saffron over, and minutes fly by as he tests the shrivelled threads with his fingers, keeping an eye until eventually a precise crimson red colour indicates completion. The saffron has retained only twenty percent of its fresh weight and has lost between eighty and ninety percent of its moisture.
In the living room, the three lads weigh today’s achievement, and Quico writes 127 grams under the Green column and 25 grams under the Roasted column of a notebook. To obtain one kilogram of saffron the stigmas of approximately 185,000 flowers must be collected.
‘And we would be happy with half a kilogram this harvest,’ Quico admits. They are optimistic of selling all the saffron they produce. ‘There is a market, especially internationally, and definitely for small producers like us. We will do what is required to sell all that is collected. Whatever the future has in stall for us, we shall face. After all, we have the best saffron in the world.’
‘Maybe it’s the soil or the climate which gives saffron its character. We were talking about it this morning, it needs cold weather, and winters here are gelid,’ Daniel points out. With more farmers and growers planting saffron, the three are convinced that its trade will become a reality in the area again. There are close to twenty hectares of saffron fields in Teruel, a definite improvement on two decades ago when the spice went through its worst moments.
The small half gram and one gram glass jars pile up inside a cupboard. The Azafrán La Cerrada company label has been lovingly designed by Raúl, as well as the accompanying parchment with recommendations on use and properties, a method of educating people again in the use saffron in ways which would hardly cross people’s minds, such as broths, sauces, syrups and infusions. Tomorrow will be another tough day, but the three still have enough energy left in them to share some last minute views before retreating to bed.
‘We do this because we like it, having fallen in love with the flower and its whole annual production cycle,’ their sentiments are encapsulated in Raúl’s words.
‘When you are city people, who share tastes, ideology and outlook on life, and a project as cool as this one crops up it’s like, wow! And we say this whilst our backs and legs hurt!’ Quico declares. ‘The joy of coming here some weekends to work a little, to breathe fresh air, to leave you mobile switched off at home, to not wear a wristwatch…’
Daniel asserts this. The purity of the project is what drives them and keeps their motivation intact.
‘We are certain that locals will say that there are some lads in Bañón harvesting saffron, a humble three-year-old project which little by little is reaping rewards. Even if they don’t know who we are, or our names, we are in their conversations.’
And that suits them fine.