Saffron: Quercy’s Red Gold

Crocus sativus Linnaeus

Most people associate saffron with Middle Eastern cooking. But this exotic and highly-prized spice was successfully produced in the Quercy region of southwest France throughout the Middle Ages. After a hiatus following the French Revolution, production resumed in the Lot Valley about 15 years ago. Today, around 80 producers are based in the region, many of them around the town of Cajarc in the Lot département.

A painstaking process

But where does saffron come from? It’s produced from the stigmas of crocus flowers – the crocus sativus Linnaeus, a purple-flowered variety that blooms in autumn. Each flower produces three red stigmas – you can see them clearly in the photo at the top. They have to be carefully separated from the flower by hand, then dried and conditioned. The filaments are used either whole or powdered to flavour both savoury and sweet dishes.

It takes around 200,000 flowers to produce 1 kilogram of saffron!

Removing the stigmas from the crocus flower

The labour-intensive process and the tiny yield ensure that the spice has a rarity value, amply reflected in the price – hence its nickname, red gold. Fortunately, you only need a small amount to flavour a dish.

Cajarc Saffron Fair

It was with a guilty conscience that I left the SF on Sunday cleaning our bilious green swimming pool for the last time this year before putting it to bed. Cajarc was holding its annual saffron fair last weekend and I couldn’t stifle my journalistic instincts.

Cajarc Tourist Office – 19th-century chapel

I drove over le Causse de Limogne, resplendent in its autumn colours of red and gold and down into the Lot Valley. It was a gorgeous autumn day, if a bit windy, but the cliffs to the south of Cajarc shielded it from the vent d’Autan. Cajarc is not a big place, nonetheless I wandered about for a bit before I found the Office de Tourisme , where there was an exhibition about the history of saffron.

Saffron was probably brought from the Holy Land by returning crusaders and/or by Arabs travelling up from Spain. The Lot Valley provided the ideal growing conditions for the crocus bulbs: hot, dry summers, cold winters and well-drained calcareous soil.

Production took off in response to the high demand for saffron both as a culinary spice and as a dye for cloth. The Lyon silk industry was a major customer during the middle ages. A series of freezing winters, the difficulties of sustaining the labour-intensive process and the French Revolution ended saffron’s commercial production. A handful of families kept production alive for their own use.

Saffron products

In a hall behind the Tourist Office the Marché au Safran was taking place. You could buy all sorts of products incorporating saffron, including foie gras, chocolate, cheeses, pâtisseries, syrups, liqueurs, flavoured oils, honey, jam, sauces and soaps. The producers’ association, Les Safraniers du Quercy, had a stand explaining saffron’s cultivation and production.

A bit of a damp squib

Crocus field

The best bit was a visit to a safranière – saffron farm. Luckily I was hanging around when they announced it. A producer walked a group through the town to his smallholding on the outskirts. Cajarc holds the fair in October when they harvest the flowers: they plant the bulbs in July. The smallholding should have been a riot of purple.

“This year, the plants have produced only about 900 flowers instead of the usual 7,000. We had a drought in the spring, a rotten summer and now a drought in the autumn. C’est pas normale. I should have watered when I planted the bulbs,” the saffron producer said.

The president of the producers’ association said they were very disappointed at the poor showing for visitors to the fair.

Saffron producer cursing the drought

As well as selling the saffron the safranier also does a good trade in crocus bulbs at local markets. After three years, each bulb has multiplied into another 15-20. The producers’ association strictly controls the quality of the saffron. The safranier told us about another producer whose crop was rejected because his workers had not cut the stigmas off in the right place. He must have been crying into his pastis.

Culinary uses

Les Safraniers du Quercy recommend around 0.1 gram of saffron filaments for a dish for 4-6 people. They say you should steep the filaments in hot water or stock for 24 hours ideally and then add the liquid to the dish 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time. They also suggest making ice cubes out of the liquid so you have it to hand when needed.

I use saffron in risotto and fish dishes. It goes best with white fish rather than oily fish in my opinion. It also complements seafood like mussels or scallops. Local dishes include cassoulet with saffron and a medieval favourite, tripes au safran, which apparently went down a storm in Albi. I’ll stick with the fish.

Honey, jam and oil flavoured with saffron

This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance linky, which shares the best articles about France on the web. Click on the image to see the other posts.


Copyright © 2011 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. I’m another ignorant reader who didn’t know saffron was produced in France. Shame about the poor production that year. I see this was written a few years ago, so I hope recent harvest have been better. Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that post was written about 5 years ago, but it does seem to happen that the autumns are getting dryer over here (except this one, it seems…). So recent harvests may have been equally dismal. I think Girl Gone Gallic has also just written a post about saffron.


  2. Like the others, I had no idea saffron was grown here in France. I can now fully appreciate why it is expensive to buy. Great article #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s incredibly labour-intensive – hence the price – but a fascinating story. It’s mostly grown around the southwest; I’m not aware of it being grown in other parts of France but I might be wrong. P.S. Thanks for subscribing! 🙂


  3. This is really interesting! I had no idea, as you predicted, that saffron was also produced in France. So painstakingly too. Thank you for sharing. #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like other products, such as garlic and violets, saffron originally came from elsewhere but was able to find good growing conditions here. It’s amazing how many plants you need to produce an appreciable amount of saffron, though!


  4. Fascinating! We have autumn crocus in the woods in Hautes-Pyrénées. I had no idea their stigmas produced saffron. I would collect some but they’re so delicate peeping out from the fallen autumn leaves, I’d be loathe to pick them. However, if I found a really sizeable patch, I would. I have been to Cajarc to the African Festival – it’s a very pretty little town. I hope they have better luck with their saffron next year.


    • We also came across some growing wild during our recent walk along the Viaur but, again, they were much less abundant than we had seen previously. I suppose you could grow your own if you had the right conditions: all the safraniers sell bulbs as well as saffron. I have always missed the Africajarc Festival for some reason but will make an effort for next year. It is a pretty place and closer to us than I had remembered.


  5. Talk about co-incidence. We went off for a walk at the Pierres Jaumatres just outside Boussac this afternoon and noticed an new safroniere advertised very close by. I shall have to go and visit one myself after reading your fascinating account.


    • Interesting that they’re starting to grow it up there. However, if the growing conditions are right, there’s no reason why not. Cultivation almost died out down here but thanks to the efforts of some dynamic individuals, it’s been revived again.


  6. I had no idea that some saffron came from France. Thanks for a very informative post. A pinch of sarrfon transforms rice and makes it look gorgeous too…


    • Until recently, most of it probably came from elsewhere, but now that they’ve revived cultivation you should be able to buy the French variety easily as well as the products it’s used in. Look out for the purple label Saffron du Quercy. I think the growers’ association website (in the post above) also sells online.


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