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Culinary rarity – Saffron from Switzerland

Saffron harvest in Mund, Switzerland / © Photo: Georg Berg

Saffron harvest in Mund, Switzerland / © Photo: Georg Berg

Klaus Eyholzer doesn’t have far to go when the dew on his saffron flowers evaporates with the first rays of sunlight. He lives in the Swiss canton of Valais and grows the precious spice plants in his home garden. The southern slopes below the small village of Mund, high on the southern slopes of the Rhône Valley, are considered by connoisseurs to be the best growing area for the demanding crocus plants.

Crocus sativus. Saffron flowers appear overnight and unfurl during the day. The three red stigma threads are the coveted saffron spice / © Photo: Georg Berg

Botanically, the saffron plant belongs to the irises. Each flower has six purple petals and usually three stigmas. Only these are dried after harvesting and traded as a spice. 130,000 blossoms have to be harvested by hand for one kilogram of this culinary treasure.

Today, saffron is grown again in the middle of the village / © Photo: Georg Berg

The saffron tradition in Mund dates back to the 15th century. But the origin is not exactly handed down. Presumably, medieval mercenaries smuggled a few of the precious saffron tubers from Spain back to their remote homeland, despite the threat of the death penalty.

Small tuber as an investment in the future / © Photo: Georg Berg

With saffron, the inhabitants, on whose fields rye is otherwise cultivated, have temporarily achieved modest prosperity. Until the middle of the last century, each family in Mund was able to support itself and live off what it grew on its land.

The saffron harvest is done by hand / © Photo: Georg Berg

Mund produces excellent quality saffron, but the maximum harvest of the coveted spice is two to three kilograms per year. Even if the price approaches the price of gold in some years, saffron cultivation can only contribute a small part to the livelihood of saffron growers.

First came the cable car, then came the road

A serpentine road winds through the old saffron fields of Mund in the Swiss canton of Valais / © Photo: Georg Berg

Just 70 years ago, Mund was cut off from the outside world in terms of transport. A cable car didn’t connect the village, located 1,200 meters above sea level, to the bustling Rhône Valley until 1951. It is also significant that the access road was built in 1978 through the middle of the valuable saffron fields. Of the former 60 fields, only three were still being cultivated when the road was built. Just in time before the final demise of the saffron tradition, an initiative was formed to save it.

The Saffron Guild

German Jossen is guild master of Mund and a knowledgeable interlocutor. On the saffron nature trail with Angela Berg, the current challenges of the saffron guild are also discussed / © Photo: Georg Berg

The renaissance of the Munder saffron began in 1979 with the founding of the Saffron Guild, which today has 184 members and also accepts interested parties who do not cultivate a saffron plot themselves. The focus is no longer on commercial interest, but on cultivating the local unique selling point.

The saffron fields of Mund are easily accessible for walkers. Only picking is strictly prohibited / © Photo: Georg Berg

The fact that the saffron harvest takes place in the tourist low season is due to the whim of this lily plant. For it is not until the end of October, when winter dormancy has begun for all other plants, that the brief period of saffron flowering arrives. The climate in Valais, the altitude and the soil conditions contribute to the fact that the saffron can develop so well in mouth. The saffron tuber survives the summer at a depth of 20 centimeters. And it does especially well when rye grows in the same field in the soil layer above the tuber. Rye bread also has a long tradition in the canton of Valais. Even today, it is baked together by village communities in communal bakehouses.

Individual secrets of success

Elmar Pfammatter is a canton chemist and has had a good experience with the saffron field, which he has not tilled for years / © Photo: Georg Berg

Today, 80 families in Mund are again working with saffron, and each seems to have its own secret recipe. Some swear by tilling the field above the tubers in summer, others like Elmar Pfammatter have had the best experience with the opposite. He is very satisfied with the harvest on his uncultivated field.

A few years ago, an elaborate irrigation system was installed for the Munder fields, but it is not used by those who swear by the natural climate with alternating rain, sunshine and balmy mists.

The black-nosed sheep, typical of the Valais. I wonder if their dried dung is the best saffron fertilizer? / © Photo: Georg Berg

Also, that the tubers must be at least 20 centimeters deep in the ground no longer seems to be a law, because those not planted so deep bloom earlier and get more sun before harvest. Looking for the essential basic requirement for the saffron miracle, you think you have found it in the loose, fine sandy and lean soil. But then you meet saffron farmers who firmly believe in fertilization of any kind.

Saffron village of Mund – customs and conviviality

Wedding in front of the Saffron Museum. As a gift there is a calf and a cow / © Photo: Georg Berg

The small Saffron Museum is one of the oldest of these wooden houses typical of the Valais. After having served for a long time as a tithe house where farmers had to pay their taxes in kind, it now provides a beautiful setting for popular festivals and family celebrations. To protect against mice, it stands on stilts stacked with plate-like stones. The exhibition and knowledgeable guided tour provide a comprehensive basic knowledge of regional agriculture.

Guild clerk Remigius Pfaffen guides through the exhibition in the Saffron Museum / © Photo: Georg Berg

In the Saffron Museum and during a guided walk through the village, visitors vividly experience how well historical events can be classified with narrated stories. Remigius Pfaffen is active for both the Saffron Guild and the Foundation pro Safrandorf Mund. Only recently, the foundation acquired the home of the photographer Fridolin Imstepf and made it accessible to the public along with his historical photo collection.

Remigius Pfaffen grew up in the same house as a child and remembers well the personality of the village photographer Fridolin Imstepf / © Photo: Georg Berg

Saffron – home production

When the flowers are harvested in the saffron fields, they are bent in such a way that no traction is exerted on the tuber, which sits deep in the ground. They are taken home in small baskets for further processing.

Saffron flowers are collected in small baskets / © Photo: Georg Berg

Three red saffron threads are plucked from each flower. Too bad that the colorful rest usually ends up on the compost.

The three red saffron threads are carefully separated from the worthless part of the flower / © Photo: Georg Berg
The number of harvested blossoms is counted precisely. On one day at the beginning of harvest time, there are 98 / © Photo: Georg Berg
The day’s yield is dried indoors, reducing its weight to a third within a day / © Photo: Georg Berg

Munder saffron – Expensive and hard to get

Sales sign for saffron products from Mund in the Valais / © Photo: Georg Berg

Mund has always produced excellent quality saffron, most of which is consumed by local restaurants. Even though the price approaches the price of gold in some years, saffron sells out quickly here.

Some of the red saffron threads can still be seen in the saffron mushroom risotto / © Photo: Georg Berg

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The research trip was partly supported by Switzerland Tourism

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