Meet the maker: the Spanish family behind some of the world's best saffron

In central Spain, the Cabra have farmed some of the world's highest-quality saffron for four generations, using a meticulously hand-produced and largely unchanged approach.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019,
By Sudi Pigott
Picking saffron

Saffron is the world’s most precious spice, and it takes about 200 flowers to make a 1g vial.

Photograph by Getty

“My mother used to hide fresh chestnuts and sweets among the heaps of crocus flowers,” says Valentina Cabra. “It was to encourage me and my sisters to help with extracting the saffron pistils after harvest.” Now 48, Victoria heads up Zaffralia, the family business, located in Castilla-La Mancha, that she runs with her three sisters and mother, Gregoria.  

The family has been farming saffron for four generations, Valentina explains, and it’s still meticulously hand-produced in much the same way it was when they began. “The biggest difference is that we no longer have to walk or cycle back from the saffron fields, as I’m able to afford a car,” she explains. “My mother remembers how in the past we’d be carrying the saffron flowers on our backs and it would stain our coats golden.”

The harvest starts early, before dawn, and it’s backbreaking work. “The picking position is so undignified,” laughs Victoria, demonstrating a kind of stooped shuffle, plucking two crocuses at a time while not trampling on any precious blooms. “But we love it,” she insists. 

At the end of the working day, the family will sit around the table gossiping while they extract the stigmas of the flowers — and the Cabras pride themselves on ensuring there are always three pistils intact. Victoria’s mother, Gregoria, remains in charge of roasting the saffron pistils over and open fire to remove the water and gently dry them. She’s improvised her own technique, using a small hand burner and a muslin sieve. It’s all done by eye and instinct. 

Saffron is the world’s most precious spice, and it takes about 200 flowers to make a 1g vial. And, for Zaffralia at least, the journey from field to vial must be completed within 24 hours to maintain freshness, and to ensure they comply with the Denominacion de Origen Protegida regulations. Castilla-La Mancha is the only saffron production area in Spain to have its authenticity certified in this way. Not that the Cabras need telling —they know their product is special.

Where to get it

Purchase Zaffralia saffron direct from the family, via their website. It’s also sold at La Melguiza, a shop specialising in the spice inMadrid’s medieval quarter. For a wider range of saffron, from not only Spain but also Iran, Kashmir, Afghanistan and France, visit saffronspices.co.uk. Closer to home, the Cornish Saffron Company operates out of Truro.

In your kitchen

A little goes a long way. Saffron is a deep, vibrant, red-orange colour with a honeyed, almost floral or hay-like aroma.  It should be used sparingly — literally four to six strands will impart flavour and colour. It’s best to very gently toast the pistils in a dry pan then steep in a little warm water, stock or even milk before using.

The favourite saffron recipe of the Cabra family is minced pork and cured ham meatballs, made with grated bread, a small glass of local white wine, oregano, parsley, garlic and a generous pinch of saffron.

The spice is key to bouillabaisse, the traditional Provencal fish stew, and an essential ingredient in Portuguese caldeirada, a glorious, mussel, clam and scallop stew made in a special copper dish. Meanwhile, different varieties of saffron buns can be found in Sweden, Norway and —perhaps unexpectedly—Cornwall. 

Or, heat a few squares of good dark chocolate in a bainmarie/microwave, pour onto sourdough bread and finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of saffron. It’s “the secret weapon” of Esmeralda Capel, the founder of gastronomic festival Madrid Fusion.

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