Saving Saffron, Morocco’s Signature Spice

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For a few short weeks in the mountains south of Marrakech, it’s a race against time to harvest the world’s most sought after spice.

It begins in the dark, with flashlights, before the first prayer call. Orion’s sword still sparkles in the night sky. Morocco’s Anti Atlas Mountains loom darkly, stippled green. They turn pink in the dawn light and the hunter’s constellation disappears. Everything human seems small and temporary in the vast open valley. 

Just outside Taliouine, about four hours south of Marrakech by car, men plant the crocus bulbs and care for the fields, but the late-autumn saffron harvest is mainly women’s work. Four men sit on crates drinking small glasses of mint tea, watching five women fan out across almost two-football-fields-worth of tidily arranged plots. They move from row to row, bent at the waist, chatting. When the conversation stops, I can hear each flower’s small squeak, as fingers pinch and pull the closed blossoms from their green stems. They grow so quickly that, even in a bad year, it’s difficult to avoid stepping on the flowers. One woman says that after a tour of the field she will find new blooms when she returns to the same spot an hour later.

September 15, 2020
Two women gather saffron in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains
Women’s work: It’s mostly women who gather to pick the saffron crocuses in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

The men describe the work as pénible – painstaking. The women who do the work say it is relaxing and meditative. Everyone agrees it takes a long time.

The women have filled a red netted bag with 6 kilograms of pale purple blossoms which, remarkably, may yield only 72 grams of threads. Back at home, they will sing songs as they carefully pull the blossoms apart to extract the stigmas: three tiny red threads that are the only part of the flower valued by the market (and must remain intact in order to command a higher price).

 
A plate of Taliouine saffron
 
Taliouine saffron sold at one of Marrakech’s cooperatives.
A colourful selection of helium ballons at a Moroccan market
A Marrakech shop worker and law student sits by a market stall
Nadyra, a law student and shop worker, strikes a pose in Marrakech’s ancient medina.

Posh Spice

Since antiquity, saffron has scented the feasts of sultans and rajahs and kings and queens. It has dyed the rugs they sat on and the clothes they walked in. It perfumed bodies and was even said to heal them: many people still regard saffron as medicine, a cure for all kinds of ills. Today, saffron remains synonymous with luxury, a signifier of wealth. It turns white rice into “gold,” flavouring and tinting Barcelona’s best paellas and Milan’s famous risottos. In Provence, bouillabaisse shows saffron’s delicate affinity for shellfish. In Iran, India and Morocco, it transforms pilafs into something extraordinary. There is no other taste quite like it: delicate, almost hay-like, floral and a little medicinal.

In my hometown of Toronto, a kilogram of saffron can sell for thousands of dollars. It’s a four-star ingredient for chefs. But for the families who live in the dry hills that ring the town of Taliouine, saffron is a lifeline. It has grown here for 500 years, carried into the Anti Atlas Mountains by Arab and Jewish traders from the eastern Mediterranean and Persia. Some 3,000 farmers harvest 90 percent of Morocco’s saffron in just three weeks every fall, and they depend heavily on its income. The flowers, in turn, depend on cool weather and an ample water supply for survival, both of which are threatened by climate change.

Rachida Baha standing in the doorway of her home overlaid on top of decorative Moroccan tiles
Looking to the future: Rachida Baha, standing in front of her family home, leads many community projects as president of Tamghart Al Filahya cooperative, an initiative supporting female saffron farmers.
Three Somali camels crossing the desert back to Marrakech overlaid on a palm grove
Long trek: Single-humped dromedaries (also called Somali or Arabian camels) make their way back to Marrakech, a city surrounded by a vast palm grove.

Morocco is the world’s fourth biggest producer of saffron. In Iran, the largest producer, droughts are also increasing in frequency and intensity. Temperatures are rising. It’s a familiar story around the world. We brought about climate change with our innovations, but saffron itself is also an innovation as it cannot grow without us. The saffron crocus is what botanists call a triploid. It relies on human hands for reproduction. The bulb-like corms of the parent plant must be dug up, divided and replanted to survive.

Secrets of the souk

Down the mountain in Taliouine, thousands of people from all over Morocco stream into the small town every November to celebrate the harvest at the annual International Festival of Saffron. The crowd is like a river that has swollen beyond its banks: It spills into the main street, stopping traffic, floating up steps. A large pink building called the House of Saffron is the festival’s epicentre, where visitors stop for a glass of saffron tea. The structure is as imposing as the seat of government, a measure of how important the spice is here.

The symbols of saffron are everywhere during the three-day festival. Men wear purple caftans and purple shirts. Everywhere I go, I am offered saffron tea – more than I may wish, but it is impolite to refuse. The yellow tea is prepared sweet to counter the tannins in the tea leaves, long infused with saffron’s medicinal scent. In the fairgrounds, women shriek and clutch their headscarves as the amusement park rides whip them around in circles. The desert mountains form a surreal backdrop behind. Boys perform stunts on dirt bikes trailing clouds of dust. A man in a blue Tuareg turban wraps tapers in candy floss. The scent of fried sardines and charcoal-fired kebabs billows through the crowd, and men carrying caddies pour sugary mint tea for thirsty customers.

A Moroccan village set on a sandy hill
A row of women picking saffron from the fields in Morocco

The carnival is also a souk. Men hawk their wares everywhere, in booths, from the backs of cars, on the steps of city hall. You can buy anything: jewellery and bras, mattresses and even toilets. In a conference hall at the back of the fairgrounds, lawmakers in black suits, bespectacled scientists and policy wonks are talking shop. Tall politicians from Rabat, the capital of Morocco, bow down to receive flowers from young girls dressed in vibrant traditional garb. The spice itself is hidden away next door in a white tent, where dozens of tables are laden with vials of saffron and argan oil and other artisanal products for sale. I taste cheese made from camel’s milk (sour) and honey made from cactus flowers (spicy). I fall in love with nut-sweet amlou, a paste of almonds, argan and honey served with flatbread for breakfast.

Taliouine saffron has a more complex bouquet than saffron from Iran and Spain. Experts show it contains more safranal – the organic compound largely responsible for the spice’s aroma.

A woman stripping the saffron of its purple petals
Morocco’s “red gold” (the delicate, thread-like stigma) is separated slowly from the rest of the flower during the day, then sent to the local cooperative to be tested, packaged and sold.

Each table features saffron from a different farmers’ cooperative, and the saffron from each cooperative has a slightly different scent. One is more medicinal; another offers notes of honey and flowers. Taliouine saffron has a more complex bouquet than saffron from Iran and Spain. Experts show it contains more safranal – the organic compound largely responsible for the spice’s aroma – and the chef at Marrakech’s famous restaurant Le Trou au Mur says it’s the strongest saffron he has ever worked with.

And yet, when I was in Marrakech, it was almost impossible to find in the souk. Vendors were trying to sell tourists something that smelled like sawdust. “Surely this is not Taliouine saffron?” I asked. I lingered in the shop. Kept chatting. Finally, a man brought out a jar hidden under the counter, the one that held Taliouine saffron. “Most tourists aren’t willing to pay for the real stuff,” he says.

Moroccan Berber musicians lined up in a row with their backs facing the camera
Traditional Berber musicians are the opening act at Taliouine’s International Festival of Saffron, held every November.

Weathering change

For more than 10 years, the Moroccan government has worked with European NGOs to boost the production, quality and price of Taliouine saffron. Modern farming techniques, newer equipment and irrigation systems, along with more plantings, have increased saffron production by 50 percent. Farmers now sell their crops for five times more than they did in 2005, many of them joining cooperatives (to share the cost of packaging and marketing) that give them access to subsidies (for capital investment, like more efficient irrigation equipment and solar powered water pumps). Members also get a better price for their saffron than the producers who choose to go it alone. And consumers know they are getting the real deal: Taliouine saffron is lab-tested and sold with a Protected Designation of Origin.

But the 2019 saffron harvest was hard. The flowers came early or not at all. The temperatures were too warm, or there wasn’t enough snow or rain. In the small village of Ait Ouzaghar where Rachida Baha and her husband Mohamed Tahtah both harvest saffron, the elders remember when snow used to pile up against the old wooden doors of the earth-walled houses in winter. Villagers had to climb out of a little door in the roof to go outside. “It’s been a long time since it snowed like it should,” says Tahtah. There used to be six months of snow in this village, which sits at 2,000 metres between Morocco’s two highest peaks. Now there are only three. “Climate change has upset everything,” says Mouad Baha, Rachida Baha’s brother. Saffron plantings are climbing higher and higher up the mountain as farmers seek colder temperatures.

Rows of containers full of spices for sale in Marrakech
Spice of life: Apothecaries sell herbal remedies (saffron is known for its medicinal properties) and brightly coloured spices in the Marrakech medina’s main square.

I follow Mohamed Tahtah into the shade of his cousin’s 500-year-old house, where his father and forefathers grew up. “Normally the crocus flowers push through the snow in early November,” he explains. I follow him up the worn stairs, past the chickens that have always lived on the first floor, past the ancient wooden beams blackened over centuries with coats of creosote. Upstairs, a loose heap of pale purple flowers sits on a small low table. Its scent is honey-sweet. A smaller pile sits next to it, a tangle of yellow-tipped red threads.

I rub three filaments into my palm. They yellow my pale skin. “C’est de l’argent,” says Tahtah. The proceeds from 1 kilogram will feed many before it reaches my side of the Atlantic. One kilogram is the work of planting and harvesting more than 100,000 flowers by hand. A single hectare of crocus flowers can yield $5,000 a year: more than half of a family’s income.

Baha and Tahtah’s mountain life appears modest by North American standards. Still, they have many more resources than the neighbours who walk dozens of kilometres between villages and churn butter by hand. They have donated around 1,000 almond, olive and apple saplings to the village, to plant around the saffron terraces. Some shade is good for the crocuses, explains Tahtah. Trees will hold earth in place when the floods come. I ask if the trees compete with the crocuses for water. He shakes his head. The trees need water when the bulbs do not. “We are not born into this life for nothing,” says Tahtah when I ask why he has taken on these projects for the village. “We have one chance and we should not lose it.” Then he says it again so I will remember: “Il ne faut pas le perdre.”

A man herding goats in Morocco
A dark green doorway under a white arched frame in Morocco

When you go

  • Stay at Riad 58 Blu —

    Riads – traditional Moroccan stately homes surrounding open-air courtyards – offer an oasis inside the walls of Marrakech’s bustling medina. A stay at this boutique riad hotel begins with orange blossom cake and Moroccan mint tea, poured high from a silver teapot, against the backdrop of a small fountain, mosaic-tiled patio and pool. Ask for rooms on the second floor (they are brighter and more spacious).

  • Dine at Trou au Mur —

    Chef Abdelhadi makes a point of reviving traditional local recipes with a sophisticated spin. The star of his well-considered menu is Marrakech’s famous tanjia, a meat stew scented with saffron and preserved lemon, then poured tableside from the earthenware tagine in which it was slow cooked overnight. For dessert, unusual ice cream flavours, including raz al hanout and pastilla, riff off the delicate flavour profile of the region’s sweet and savoury phyllo pastry.

  • Dine at Naranj —

    This cozy, rustic yet modern Lebanese spot in Marrakech serves up briouate, a traditional pastry filled with fresh cheese, on a bed of greens with a saffron-orange dressing. Eggplant is fried in thin slices and layered with lentils and bulgur and topped with crisp almonds. Hummus, baba ghanouj and muhammara dips are perfectly balanced and served with soft, straight-from-the-oven flatbreads. Book ahead.

  • Visit Moroccan Culinary Art Museum —

    A trip to the Moroccan Culinary Art Museum for a tour and cooking class is the best way to discover local cuisine. Originally part of Bahia Palace, each room highlights Morocco’s flavours and dishes, from Jewish holiday foods to couscous, and the tour includes a demonstration of the Moroccan mint tea ritual (brewed with gunpowder tea leaves and steeped with mint and sugar). Taliouine saffron may be purchased here – at $10 to $25 per gram, you know it’s the real deal.
     

Make sure to review government entry requirements prior to travel.

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