Saffron crocuses have been cultivated on the slopes of Mund, a Swiss Alpine village, since the late middle ages.
Back bent, feet apart, white hat pushed back on his brown neck, Salzmann stands in the middle of a field. He snaps off the final violet blossom and places it in his basket with the others. He has picked 431, a day’s harvest. “We’re getting there,” he says, beaming.
Beat Salzmann, who’s pushing 80, is a farmer in Valais – the highest-elevation saffron-growing region in Europe. Valais is in the south of Switzerland, almost on the Italian border. Salzman’s fields are all on an incline; trip here, and you could tumble into the valley. The field is just below the village of Mund, home to around 500 souls who live in centuries-old, sun-cured, dark timber houses. Mund has a church, a shop and a stream that meanders through the village. It lies at an elevation of almost 1200 meters. Everywhere you look, there are mountains – fir-green, scree-gray or snow-white – and below them, green alpine meadows. The goats, sheep and cows are all black-and-white.
On Sundays, the village fills with tourists sporting brightly colored outdoor jackets. The first groups pile out of the yellow Post bus early in the day. They come to hike and to see the rare Blackneck goats that graze in the village, but most of all, they come for Crocus sativus, a plant with blossoms made up of six purple petals, bright-yellow stamens and a crimson pistil with three threads, or styles, at its heart: saffron. The plant is so precious, fine and capricious that it has earned itself the byname “queen of plants.” Also, perhaps, because it is a member of the iris family, a symbol of European royalty for centuries.
Each flower only blooms for up to three days, which is when it must be harvested – by hand
Extolled in the Bible, used in ancient times as pain relief from women’s ailments and by the ancient Egyptians as a dye – saffron-tinted mummy wrappings found in ancient graves prove it – today saffron is an exotic ingredient in cooking, complementing meat, rice and fancy desserts. The taste of saffron is difficult to describe – smoky sweet ending on bitter note, and intense, is probably the best way to put it.
Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. Why? It takes 200 000 blossoms to produce a kilo of saffron, and an industrial method of harvesting the delicate threads has not yet been devised. What’s more, the plant will not grow everywhere. It likes cold winters, mild summers and the kind of dry ground you find in steppe landscapes. It thrives best in frequent sunshine and daytime temperatures of no more than 17° C, which is why Mund’s mountain climate is ideal. The earth is sandy and a little loamy, and there are lots of people with the patience to keep planting the new corms, without which this member of the iris family would not reproduce, as the saffron crocus is sterile.
Nobody knows exactly where saffron originated, but today, the largest saffron-growing region is in Iran. It’s unclear how the plant crossed the Alps and came to Mund, as no evidence exists, but it is thought to have been brought to Switzerland by pilgrims. At any rate, saffron crocuses arrived in Mund in the 14th century – at a time when they were springing up in other parts of Switzerland too, only to wither and die. Mund was the only place where they prospered and thrived.
Last fall, Salzmann collected 48 000 flowers. Growing saffron is hard work. The fields are steep and the paths to them are narrow. Each flower only blooms for up to three days, which is why it’s crucial to lose no time harvesting them. There’s no way to predict how many plants will open overnight, so farmers are always in for a surprise when they arrive at their fields in the morning. After the flowers have been picked, the saffron threads – three per flower – are pulled out and dried, several hundreds of thousands in good years.
Everything is different this year. It’s already October – harvest time – and only 2755 blossoms have found their way into Salzmann’s basket. The other farmers’ yield is also pretty meager. Is it a bad year? Salzmann shakes his head indulgently. City dwellers and their silly questions. From his shed, he produces a red-bound notebook filled with writing in a spidery hand. How high up is the snow? When did it last rain? When did the first crocuses appear? Salzmann began making notes when he took over the farm 20 years ago. Today, he’s the chronicler of Mund saffron, the person people consult when they want to know about the upcoming harvest. It was late in 2016, too, he says. After a rainy spring, it stayed dry into the fall. In the end, there was a record harvest of 57 000 blossoms. Saffron cultivation has not always fared so well in Mund. In the late 1960s, the Valais Canton Council built a road down to the valley. The newly asphalted freedom trail opened up new possibilities, and many young people drifted away. The older folk stayed behind to tend to their arid fields.
The turning point came with the return of a lost son of saffron, Erwin Jossen, then around 50, today nearly 90. Jossen receives us in his retirement home in Naters, a small town below Mund and foreign land to many of the villagers. His room has a view of the mountains, his old home. On the table, good cigarillos, and above the narrow bed, a painting of his village. Once a man of Mund, always a man of Mund – and the same devotion appears to apply to saffron. As a young man, Jossen went down into the valley to become a priest, leaving the family field to his siblings. In the late 1970s, when saffron seemed about to disappear, Jossen proclaimed its renaissance. He and 47 other villagers founded the Mund saffron guild on May 4, 1979. “We had a duty to uphold our tradition,” says Jossen. They ordered saffron corms from Spain, cleaned up the fields and convinced those who had stayed behind that a 600-year-old tradition could not simply be allowed to die. Today, the saffron guild has some 200 members, most of them part-time farmers. Saffron is an important additional source of income in Mund.
The guild harvests between three and four kilos on average each year. In 2018, the yield was a mere two kilos, but this tiny amount had its price. One gram of Mund saffron costs roughly 26 euros – five times as much as Iranian saffron. The threads are sold straight from the field or in the village shop. With the growth of the guild, demand also grew so and now exceeds supply. A study confirmed the flavor and color of Mund saffron to be exceptionally intense, and that kind of news travels. Now regular private customers, pasta factories and restaurateurs from all over Switzerland buy in bulk. Tourists pick up the rest, leaving little for the people of Mund themselves.
Pius Schnydrig, 57, is Mund’s rangy dairyman. He makes cheese, also saffron cheese. Arms visibly steeled by decades of stirring, Schnydrig is in his dairy this morning, a small room on the ground floor of an old farmhouse. The temperature is tropical in here and you can hear his nephew’s goats rustling in the straw next door. The place smells of cow and warm milk. The milk simmering in a silver vat is as yellow as mango lassi. Bubbling on the surface are orange dots of saffron – one gram per 50 liters. The Schnydrigs have been making cheese for generations. The oldest and largest family in Mund, they are village aristocracy, so to speak. In the summer, they take their cattle to the Bryscheru Alp above Mund. In the winter, they work here beside the goat shed. Cows with names like Julia, Franzi and Selma provide the milk for the cheese, which tastes of aromatic summer meadows. But the most popular variety is the saffron cheese – even though its ingredients aren’t entirely local. When the saffron hype hit Mund, it also hit Schnydrig’s cheese. So coveted did Mund’s saffron become – and hence too expensive for cheesemaking purposes – that Schnydrig resorted to other sources. These days, he regularly uses saffron from Iran. Isn’t that misleading? Not in Schnydrig’s view. “The cheese is made in Mund,” he says with a laugh, as he stirs the mixture with what looks like a harp on a stick. The customers, he says, don’t care about the origin of the saffron.
Schnydrig’s saffron Mutschlis, bright-yellow wheels of cheese each weighing one kilo, are often reserved months in advance. What’s left is sold in the village shop or in the valley. Mund’s only restaurants, the Safran and the Salwald, face the same problem as Schnydrig. They serve saffron specialties, such as risotto, parfait and cakes – all of them orange colored and popular with hungry hikers and day trippers. Like Schnydrig, they compensate for the shortage by growing their own and buying up their neighbors’ and acquaintances’ entire harvest, as well as making the odd purchase abroad.
You could say that the fame of the dried crocus styles has outstripped Mund’s capacity, but the people here reject the idea of growing more saffron to cash in on the demand. A newcomer’s attempt to market it failed back in the 1990s due to the farmers’ lack of interest. There’s no hotel in the village, so visitors have to find private accommodation. The Saffron Museum opens only on request and even then, not always. Beat Salzmann has never considered extending his fields just to make more money. “What we have is sufficient,” he says.
By now, he’s returned to his kitchen bench at home. It’s afternoon and the day’s pickings form a purple pile on the brown tabletop. Salzmann’s wife, Anni, 74, her youthful face framed by a short brown bob, serves homemade saffron liquor and cake. “This helps the job along,” she says. Grandson Felix, sitting next to Salzmann, bends his blond head over the table, his eyes trained on the blossom in his hand. Threads to the left, blossoms to be discarded. They’ll be spending the next three weeks doing this, enlisting the help of other grandchildren, sons and daughters-in-law. Saffron isn’t just about tradition, it’s all about family, too.