17: Saffron Dreams
How a math teacher and a startup dude came to grow the world's most expensive spice--and supply some of Copenhagen's best restaurants
Once, when I was living in Spain, I travelled to La Mancha to do a story about the saffron harvest there. La Mancha is the area southeast of Madrid that was the setting for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and the local windmills--those hulking white towers that Quixote takes for threatening giants —figure prominently in the novel. So it was thrilling to discover that the crocuses that are harvested for the three, fire-orange threads inside their petals grow in thick purple carpets beneath the windmills. The whole thing is unbearably picturesque. For the two or three weeks that the harvest lasts, these two aspects of quintessential Spanishness collide, as seemingly the whole village turns out to pick flowers in the shadow of the monsters El Quijote once fought.
I know that most of the world’s saffron comes from Iran, and that at least part of what gets sold as the authentically Spanish stuff is imported and fraudulently labelled. But still, that scene--to say nothing of all the paellas I’ve eaten in my life— is so deeply burned in my memory that I continue to associate saffron with Spain.
So it was with great surprise, and no little delight, that I learned that it was being grown in what I sometimes think of as the opposite of Spain, which is to say, Scandinavia. Österlen Saffran was started a few years ago in Skåne by a couple of guys with absolutely no experience growing the spice--they’ve never even visited a saffron farm. But what they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm, and somehow, the combination of Swedish soil, a deep willingness to learn, and a lot of great energy has produced a saffron of brilliant quality--so brilliant that their crop has made its way into the kitchens of Relæ, Daniel Berlin, Barr, and Noma.
It’s a fun and inspiring story, even without the windmills. Hope you enjoy.