He Learned to Walk Behind a Plow

May 2007

As we drove across the flat plateau called La Mancha, my wife Ruth and I were bound to meet one of the last artisan saffron families of Spain. In one aspect, it was an urgent mission for La Tienda: we are committed to support as many quality artisan producers as we can. In addition, I might add, every time you purchase their products for your home you are helping to support traditional Spain. 

Saffron has always been one of the world's most precious products. It is the hand-toasted stamen of the crocus flower – a flower similar to the ones you see each spring in your garden. It has been cultivated since ancient times in the Near East. The Moors brought with them the condiment az-za'faran during their occupation of Spain over a thousand years ago, and, until recently over 70% of the world's production was grown on the high Castilian plateau known as La Mancha. 

As in our country, shifting trade agreements and industrialization can push traditional craftsmanship to extinction. The town of Minaya, the goal of our journey, is a dramatic example. Thirty years ago, the population of the town was 3,000, now 2/3 of the population have left, and those who remain include many in their eighties. 

Minaya is a typical small city of Castile. As we drove into town we saw a Plaza Mayor enclosed by low buildings of similar design. A venerable old church was standing firmly in one corner, and across the plaza we could hear the voices of children in a school that was bustling with activity. We drove slowly through the silent sun drenched side- streets of this farm community. The roads were flanked by white stucco buildings and elusive street numbers. Then we saw the friendly face of María Angeles Serrano hailing us from the green door of her home.

She greeted us warmly, introducing us to her husband, Juan Antonio Ortiz, and shepherding us through her modest home, across a small patio and into her workroom. It is there that she weighs and prepares her family's precious crop. The shelf on the wall displayed examples of the handmade ceramic containers, which she had ordered months ahead of time, since each one is hand painted and fired in a small artisan kiln. 

We launched into an animated conversation about the process of preparing the harvested flowers. Once they are picked (what a back-breaking job!) they are spread on a large table located in the old municipal market, whereupon about thirty or forty older ladies pick through the flowers with skillful speed. They pick the stamen from deep in the flower, retaining the entire stem including its lighter colored ends. This is to prove to the buyer that this is authentic saffron and not an imitation. 

As with any precious product, the production of saffron leaves room for unscrupulous practices, such as adding foreign substances. This subterfuge is more easily accomplished with saffron called coupé – where the stamen is picked further from its base eliminating the less flavorful light yellow ends. With the uniform color of the coupe stamen it is easy to dilute them with such substances as cheap dyed corn silk. 

Since Middle Eastern saffron is flooding the market, quality is a matter of survival, as well as pride, for María Angeles and her family. This is why on each bottle they affix a seal that says D.O. La Mancha. It is a quality control designation awarded by an independent association that guarantees the authenticity of the famous saffron grown in La Mancha.

Her husband, Juan Antonio joined in the conversation describing the next step in the process. The stamens are placed in a poplar sieve-like container called a Cedazo with a screen of silk and then are toasted over a very low fire. Originally, the toasting was done over charcoal, but now a gas flame is used. He remarked that he liked to toast his saffron longer than his wife – making a drier product. 

By this time their young daughter, Paloma, had joined us. Her dad remarked that she followed the tradition of her mother. They all agreed that they could tell by tasting each saffron thread who had done the toasting! 

Finally, María Angeles brought out an ancient woven basket filled to the brim with intensely bright and fragrant saffron. She proudly said that their daughter and son David shared their love of this ancient product. This meant that the tradition would continue for another generation. This was especially meaningful to Juan Antonio and María Angeles because theirs is the last remaining family in Minaya who knows how to produce exquisite saffron. 

Artisan quality saffron is not just a matter of putting bulbs in the ground. This tradition has been passed on from father to son, mother to daughter for over one thousand years. The particular microclimate of this village is recognized as producing some of the finest saffron in the world. It is a product that absorbs all the strength and intensity that the land has to give it. 

We learned too, as Juan Antonio reached in his pocket and spread a few crocus bulbs on the table, that the harsh winters and blistering summers of Minaya are perfect for the bulbs – as the climate minimizes the danger of fungus and mold which would destroy them. Every year or two the bulbs are split and rotated to keep them healthy.

The gathering of the flowers comes in late October when the bright harvest moon shines on the emerging blooms. By dawn there is a dramatic carpet of purple as far as the eye can see. The Ortiz Serrano family, aided by their neighbors, gather the flowers as quickly as possible before the blooms close for the day. They repeat the process for several days until all the blossoms in the field have been gathered.

Juan Antonio is a dignified man who loves the land he has tilled for so many years. He carries within him the knowledge of many generations. What I appreciated most was that he was a true traditionalist. He told me he prefers plowing with a mule, even though most of the time he uses a tractor. Sometimes for recreation, he goes plowing with a bunch of the guys in town and their mules. Juan Antonio reflected, “I first learned to walk behind a plow." 

After being Juan and María Angel's guest for a sumptuous meal at the local truck stop, Ruth and I left town with a deep sense of satisfaction. There is something very reaffirming when you spend a few hours with people of the soil.

Tu amigo,