OLMEDA DEL REY, Spain — In the cool of one recent November morning, Nati Martinez was out in one of her saffron plots, bent over rows of spiky green plants, plucking their violet roses.
Later, when she filled her bucket, she spread the flowers out on her kitchen table, deftly pinched out the three dark-red stigmas from each and then dried them over a charcoal fire. The fragrant flower petals went outside on a heap.
It was harvest time in Spain for saffron, one of the world's most expensive spices, sold in small vials or jars and fetching $2 to $5 each in U.S. stores.
A Pound Is Priceless
Martinez consider herself lucky when her three-week harvest yields a pound of dried stigmas, which she sells to the local buyer who makes the rounds of the villages in Cuenca province, 95 miles east of Madrid.
Saffron stigmas are lighter than goose down, and a pound represents about 75,000 blossoms. The stigmas lose 80% of their weight in the drying process.
Last year, a pound of stigmas brought 30,000 to 35,000 pesetas ($214 to $250), enough to buy a television set or a bicycle. When Martinez was harvesting this year's crop, a price had not been set.
For the small farmers of this region, saffron is a traditional cash crop to supplement income from wheat, barley, sunflowers and, more recently, mushrooms.
But farther to the south and west across Castilla-La Mancha, the region made famous by Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote, his knight of the mournful countenance, saffron-growing is big business.
According to the Spanish Saffron Exporters Assn., Spain has about 12,000 growers whose fields range in size from many hectares to several celemines. One hectare is 2.47 acres; a celemine, the measure established by the Arabs who introduced saffron into Spain in the 8th Century, is an 18th of a hectare.
Saffron grows from bulblike corms that are planted in the red, sandy soil of central Spain every three to four years.
When the first saffron roses bloom around mid-October, hundreds of men, women and children take to the fields before the morning dew is gone to pick the flowers, pinch out the stigmas and dry them.
Technology Being Tested
At least one Spanish saffron exporter is experimenting with machines to plant corms, weed plots and pick roses. Laser beam technology is also being tested for the delicate task of cutting the stigmas.
Spain satisfies 70% of the world's demand for saffron. Agricultural experts say this year's harvest in Castilla-La Mancha alone could reach 44,000 pounds.
Exports of Spanish saffron to the United States last year totaled 5,000 pounds.
With 70,000 pounds harvested last year, Spain is the world's major saffron producer. Tiny amounts are also produced in Italy, the Loire Valley in France and the Indian state of Kashmir.
Used Many Ways
But the spice plays only a minor role in the kitchens of Spain, where it is used chiefly in paella, a rice and seafood dish from the southeastern region of Valencia.
Northern and Eastern European countries feature saffron in breads, pastries and dumplings.
Much of exported Spanish saffron finds its way into cosmetics, butter and margarine as yellow dye.
Much of what is sold as Spanish saffron powder in Europe and the United States actually is made from the ground yellow stamens or from entirely different plants altogether. It is considered inferior.
Figures are difficult to obtain on domestic Spanish consumption, but Maria Garrote, chief cook and part-owner of Claveles Restaurant in the town of Cuenca, says most housewives she knows "throw a small amount into broth or potato stews to give it some color and taste."
Spanish farmers often hoard their saffron stigmas from year to year until the price goes up, wrapping them in tissue paper and placing them between the folds of sheets in linen closets.
Juan Ramirez de la Fuente, a teller at the Cuenca Savings & Loan Bank, says some days the bank reeks of saffron because farmers' wives keep all the family valuables in linen closets.
"When they come into the bank and open up their passbooks, saffron stigmas drop out and the whole place smells."