TALIOUINE, Morocco – In the North African nation of Morocco, growing and harvesting saffron – a delicate plant often known as “red gold” due to its high market value – is a matter that stays in the family, as farmers often involve their children in the arduous task of separating the precious strands from the flowers.
Harvest season takes place between the end of October and the beginning of November, when harvesters wake up before dawn to avoid the sun from “burning” the plant’s fragile crimson-colored stigmas once the flowers open their petals to greet our closest star.
The separated strands are later laid out to dry before making their way to the global market, where saffron is appreciated as a gourmet product used in all kinds of dishes such as the iconic Spanish paella.
In the early daybreak, women Berber harvesters across the Anti-Atlas region stoop down to pick the mature flowers, which sport an intense lilac hue, before taking them to their homes, where the entire family tackles the task of sundering the plant’s cherished red pistils.
Once they have been collected, the stigmas are toasted either with sunlight or electric toasters, until they reach a humidity level of between 7-15 percent.
The degree of moisture must be controlled with extreme precision: if it goes under 7 percent, the stems break and cannot be marketed; if the level exceeds 15 percent, the product loses the source of all its value – its unique and instantly-recognizable aroma.
Saffron prices have skyrocketed over the past decade: while a gram (0.035 ounces) used to fetch 15 dirhams ($1.57) some 10 years ago, nowadays the claret-shaded spice can reach up to 35 dirhams per gram ($3.67).
But this exorbitant price has not been enough to prevent most farmers in the saffron-rich Taliouine area from earning a low income that usually does not allow them to enjoy most non-basic amenities.
Agricultural tasks are not even mechanized and farmers can only count on yokes drawn by mules or donkeys to till the land.
An average woman worker in this region is capable of collecting an average of 15 grams of saffron strands per day, which involves handling some 2,250 flowers for a daily revenue of some 525 dirhams ($55.07).
In Taliouine’s arid soil, most crops cannot prosper: only saffron, almond trees and some basic garden vegetables grow in the rocky mountain region that is unsparingly punished by harsh sunlight and strong winds.
Contrary to expectations, the local Berber gastronomy generally does not use saffron as seasoning, although people in the area do use it to flavor their tea, which is doubtlessly the most widely-consumed beverage.
The saffron is instead sold to the rest of the country, where it is used as a luxury ingredient in some exquisite yellow-tinged dishes.
Morocco is the world’s third-largest saffron producer, falling far behind Iran (which dominates the international market with 90 percent of global production) and Spain. Some 6 tons of this “red gold” are harvested every year in the North African country.