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On a narrow, terraced field high up in the French Alps, I got down on my knees among the flowers and bees and tried to frame a shot without the long shadow of a photographer appearing. Sweet scent rose up all around and the mountains seemed to sparkle in the low sunshine as I photographed the unusual harvest of a crop that is worth more than gold: saffron. Just two women, one with a baby strapped to her back, delicately plucking flowers from the earth, one-by-one, in the peace of the early morning.

Saffron: a product worth more than gold requires a delicate, patient harvest. Saffron may be used for dying fabric, for its various medicinal properties and, most famously today, for its culinary uses. Before the French Revolution, France produced tonnes of precious saffron every year, but production declined rapidly afterwards.

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By the early s, there were only a handful of saffron growers left throughout the country. However, something of a saffron renaissance is taking place, notably in the South of France — today there are 90 saffron growers in Provence alone. Certainly unusual as wedding presents go, the gift would have been a poisoned chalice had they been shy of hard work.

Deft fingerwork and bags of patience are essential.

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Though saffron harvesting is not difficult per sethe production of dried saffron is extremely labour-intensive. In autumn, the crocuses bloom for a period of weeks and, at this point, producers need to drop everything and devote themselves to the harvest. The morning dew needs to have dried, but the flowers must be plucked early, before the sun has started to wilt them. The grade of the saffron they will produce declines rapidly with exposure to UV light.

The stigmas must then be taken out of the flowers, dried that same day at a precise temperature for a precise durationand then stored for 2 months, in order for the flavour to fully develop.

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Separating the flower parts is, in itself, a pernickety process. Each flower has one bright red stigma divided into three filaments that need to be gently pulled away from the rest of the flower using the fingertips, without squashing or ripping them apart. Once my attempts had been enough to dye my fingers a respectably deep yellow, I ducked back behind my camera. The reward for all of this work, once gathered together, seems pretty underwhelming.

Dozens of bumblebees were tipped out onto the dissection table with the blooms — and they just stayed there, stretched out with the flowers. However, as I dazedly smelled the flowers and watched the blissed-out bees, I was quickly reminded that the scent of saffron crocuses is a mere distraction from the real business of the day.

Saffron gives off a unique, heady, spicy and complex smell. Certainly not at all what you might expect to be hidden within these pretty, dainty flowers, which, once denuded of their valuable secret, are simply thrown away or rather composted, in this case. Save my name,and website in this browser for the next time I comment.

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