Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, used to be widely grown in France but more or less died out with the arrival of mechanised farming methods. Now four French sisters are spurring on a saffron revival, growing it on rooftops in Paris where it seems to be very much at home.
One hundred fifty tonnes of certified saffron are grown worldwide, most of it in Iran. They’re harvesting it now, in the fields of Khorasan and Fars in the northeast of the country.
Here in the French capital, they’re harvesting saffron too, but in a concrete jungle, on five rooftops in and around the city.
No matter where you are in the world, it’s painstaking work: from planting the bulbs to picking the flowers, separating out the three crimson stigma, drying and packaging, everything is done by hand. And the harvest season is short, lasting just three to four weeks in October.
“You need 150 flowers to make one gram of saffron,” says Améla du Bessy, the brains behind rooftop-grown saffron.
“This year we planted 60,000 bulbs, manually, one by one, with people from Paris. It’s like magic. When you put people’s hands in the soil everyone’s stress goes away and everyone starts talking. That’s the magic of urban farming.”
They’re now into their third week of harvesting.
“It’s a lot of pressure, you have to pick the flowers, separate the three stigma from the petals and dry them. Within the same day the flower blooms. Otherwise it is lost.”
“Saffron is perfectly suited for urban farming. It’s happier on our rooftops than it is in the soil of our parents in the centre of France. It needs very little water so we don’t irrigate it, and it needs very light soil. Most of the soil in France is too heavy for it.”
The density of population is big cities is also a real plus when it comes to farming saffron.
“Saffron needs people and the city is where we have people to come and look at it, to use it, and think about what we can do with it. When you’re in the countryside it’s more difficult to find those people.”
When they launched last year, the sisters harvested 300g of saffron strands. They had two rooftops: one at the Institute of the Arab World (a poetic acknowledgment to saffron’s roots in the Middle East), the other on top of a large supermarket in the 13th district.
“This year we have five rooftops, so we’re hoping for about 700g.”
As with most urban farming, the idea is to have short supply chains: to produce and sell locally.
“That was also one of the triggers that made us start this adventure,” du Bessy explains. “We‘re very happy because one of our rooftops is on top of a supermarket so we can sell the saffron just below the place where we grow it. That’s one of the things we love.
“And saffron is also specifically well suited for this short circuit because it’s so light, the volumes are small and we can deliver it within Paris. I can carry part of last year’s crop in my handbag!
"So the idea is to keep it local, so it is used by chefs or artisans near where we grow it. And sold in shops nearby.”