The Alchemical Saffron Harvest

Years ago I started imagining a saffron harvest, conjuring up the process of hundreds of humans, with their hands, turning fields of flowers into an essence, a spice, dried stigma so concentrated it’s almost like a drug. Time passed.  As I let it float, it took on disorienting dimensions.  I imagined it as a Dionysian foray into color, or a metaphoric turning of one matter — flower — into another — a spice.  Or one color — violet — into another — deeply inbued red-yellow. An ever-expanding chain of one sense – color – becoming another — scent — and another — flavor.

What luck to find myself in Consuegra, a small town in La Mancha, Spain, for the celebration of this year’s saffron harvest.  Behind every foray into color there is a ground, real people, a story. It rained. We watched children compete in saffron plucking contests, as if a spelling bee or lego competition.  Elder women peered over shoulders of the children — the spectacled, the quick, the chubby — until the first girl jumped up, having separated the pale violet petals of the autumn crocus, picked that morning, into a pile of zingy red threads. 

What a marvel of patience! How arresting to see the old women leaning with their milk-blue eyes full of concentration as they extracting the silky threads.  Color became the mode of transport of tradition across time, like an echo, a talking drum.  (Hillsides of windmills mark the travels of Cervantes and Don Quixote in La Mancha.) That evening, threads are toasted in homes over sieves until a cooler darker brown emerges.  Alchemy! Red gold. It makes the head spin, inside a wave of scent, color and flavor. 200,000 flowers for a kilo of the stuff. Disruption of the senses!  

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