Saffron, the "Red Gold" of the Ile de Ré

Sainte-Marie-de-Ré
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Saffron, the "Red Gol ...
September, the month of the start of the school year. Or rather the “exit” concerning the saffron bulbs which wake up slowly while the night temperatures begin to drop on the island of Ré. On this island land renowned for oysters, salt and potatoes, this delicate and refined spice, harvested and prepared entirely by hand, has surprisingly found its place in the local gastronomy thanks to a daring and visionary "saffron crop" which has made the bet to add this original culture to the culinary heritage of the region. Meeting with Evelyne Ménagé just a few weeks before the flowering of saffron scheduled for fall!

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An original culture on the island of Ré

Ah saffron! Just its evocation makes us dream and transports us to distant lands... Cultivated for millennia in Iran, Iraq, India and Kashmir, Afghanistan, Greece or Morocco, this spice endowed with a thousand and one virtues is now cultivated all over the world… right up to the Île de Ré! Yet nothing intended the cultivation of saffron to make its appearance on the White Island, if it was not the ambition of a passionate woman: Evelyne Ménagé.


Evelyne Ménagé

Evelyne Ménagé, saffron producer on the Ile de Ré

Saffron


Originally from Niort, this former secretary at the horticultural school in Niort, decides one day to leave everything to realize her dream: to cultivate saffron, "the queen of spices" for which she fell in love. To fulfill this unusual desire, she moved to the Ile de Ré in 2013 and began cultivating "Red Gold" on a 1000 m2 plot of land located in Sainte-Marie-de-Ré. Evelyne knows it: she must arm herself with patience and adopt a state of mind that is the opposite of any productivist vision. But working the land provides it with unparalleled well-being: a return to nature, pleasing the eyes, satisfaction with a job well done and a release of endorphins on contact with the soil...

With saffron, the producer has found her new path, a new art of living. A real niche because there are only 3 artisans cultivating this bulb today in Charente Maritime when the region was a major producer of saffron until the 18th century.


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Saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world

Saffron
Saffron


More expensive than truffles or caviar (between 30 and 40 € per gram), the price of saffron is justified by the meticulous manual work required for its production and the quantity of flowers picked to produce 1 dry gram: between 150 and 180 flowers, or 5 grams of freshly pruned saffron pistils.  

In addition, saffron, which belongs to the Iridiaceae family, is a capricious plant and requires special attention. In mid-August, Evelyne finishes planting Crocus Sativus, the bulbs that generate saffron. Then it will be necessary to wait for a meteorological phenomenon to intervene to cause the flowering of the splendid purple flowers during the autumn: a thermal shock caused by the difference between the temperature of the day and that of the night. Evelyne is patient, is on the alert, and watches for the green light from Mother Nature! When flowering takes place, a race against time begins! We must act quickly: picking, pruning and drying must be done in the same day.


Saffron  Saffron

Picking saffron


Saffron flowers only for a few weeks. Each pistil must then be gently harvested by hand. The tedious job of pruning involves extracting the three bright red stigmas from the thread-like pistils which are placed in an open oven so that they do not take in moisture and retain all of their aromas. During this process, the filaments lose 80% of their weight. Evelyne will spend a total of six hours of work per day to obtain 10 grams of dry saffron with a pleasantly spicy smell. For a month of maturation, the saffron is stored in the dark, in an airtight container before it can be used.

Real painstaking work, however, she enjoys every moment!


Saffron pruning

Pruning saffron

Saffron  Saffron

Consumption of saffron from Île de Ré

Sought after by gourmets, this precious spice is distinguished by its bitter taste with characteristic notes of metal and smoky earth that allow it to be associated with savory or sweet dishes. Its taste also has the extraordinary ability to reveal the flavors of food, not to mention the superb golden color it gives to dishes! From the classic paella with crème brûlée, including rice, chicken, saffron tagine, saffron mussels or even Moroccan rabbit, its magic operates in many recipes.  

Saffron has also been widely recognized since Antiquity for its medicinal properties. According to legend, Cleopatra used it as a cosmetic and aphrodisiac. Alexander the Great would sprinkle it in his bath to heal his wounds and strengthen his muscles.


Products derived from saffron

Products derived from saffron from Île de Ré


Today, Evelyne produces less than 100 grams of saffron per year. Its production is prized by the great gastronomic restaurants of the island and the region, including Atalante in Sainte-Marie-de-Ré or the famous Coutanceau establishment in La Rochelle. Her small vials are also on sale at the Producteurs Ré-unis farm and she collaborates with producers of the artisanal crumbery L'Abeille de Ré and salt to develop unique products and delight the taste buds of fine mouths!  

To consume without moderation.


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Article and photos prepared by Lesley Williamson for the Charente Maritime Guide


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