Hunched over on the steep slope, I pinch the ruddy crocus stigmas, the tips of the flowers’ pistils, as delicately as possible, trying not to lose my balance and tumble down into the valley. It takes 390 of these stigmas, gathered by hand from 130 crocus sativus flowers, to produce one gram of saffron.
This, however, isn’t Iran or Spain, countries known for their bountiful saffron fields. The Matterhorn rises in the distance. I’m in tiny Mund, Switzerland, a town tucked between Geneva and Zermatt in the Aletsch Glacier range, the birthplace of the Rhone River and the unlikely home of these precious purple flowers.
The region was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 for its stunning Alpine beauty. Although I grew up in Geneva, a mere two hours’ drive from Mund, I’d never seen saffron cultivated in these high altitudes until I stumbled upon a risotto recipe that demanded Swiss saffron. My antennae sprang up.
With a few phone calls to Swiss chefs and the Mund city hall, I soon learned that saffron was harvested in the Mund area as long ago as the 14th century. Then, in the 1950s, as industrialization spread throughout Switzerland, farmers gradually abandoned the crop. But when state authorities decided in 1979 to build a road through what remained of the saffron fields, hundreds of villagers rebelled. Led by the village priest, Erwin Jossen, they rose up to protect the crucial four acres historically under cultivation. More important, their fervor reignited the tradition of saffron farming in the area.
So how did the precious threads get from Asia to Switzerland?
Many civilizations claim to have discovered the red spice, but its origins probably lie in ancient Greece or Anatolia, where it was first cultivated 3,000 years ago. During the Middle Ages, Arabian botanists and cooks brought saffron, already common in Middle Eastern cuisine, to Spain.
Says former Mund mayor Leo Albert, who let me pick the stigmas from the crocuses in his field, “We read in a medieval treatise that mercenaries on their way back to Switzerland brought saffron from Italy through the Simplon Pass, braving the strict customs laws of the times. They hid crocus bulbs in their long hair, risking death if discovered.”
Mund has 529 residents today, and 60 of them own a piece of the saffron fields in parcels ranging from 376 to 2,368 square feet.
“We formed an old-fashioned guild in 1979,” Albert explains. “New bulbs were ordered from Kashmir and Turkey. Plans were drawn. Year after year, the amount of cultivated land grew, and more inhabitants got involved.”
By 2004, the guild had obtained an AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Controlee, the stamp of approval from the Swiss government, and the official Mund saffron was born.
Saffron is created by drying and crushing the three threads that grow inside the crocus flower. Last year’s harvest yielded a grand total of about nine pounds — a small amount, perhaps, but enough to reenergize a village and put it on the international foodie map.
In 2007, Mund joyfully opened a saffron museum in a Lilliputian chalet dating back to 1437. Inside, the scent of wood and hay is intense; pictures, posters and artifacts line the walls and tell the history of saffron in Mund. The method of cultivation includes planting rye just above the treasured bulbs to act as mulch and to mitigate the humidity.
“Throughout the year, you see nothing,” says Albert. “You have to believe in the saffron. And then suddenly the fields explode with purple flowers.”
Today, experts consider Mund saffron superior to any in the world. Neither Spain nor Iran, with their massive outputs (Spain produces 33,000 pounds a year, Iran 190,000), can compete with Mund saffron for flavor.
It’s noon, and the nearby chorus of church bells calls gourmands to the table. “This is a town of gastronomes!” says Restaurant Safran’s elegant owner, Helena Schweitzer. A creamy saffron soup made with fendant, a Swiss white wine, tastes flowery and earthy at the same time. In the spaetzle, small handmade noodles, the spice brings out a sweetness that perfectly complements a loin of boar with chestnuts and red cabbage.
At Cafe Salwald, deer heads and horns adorn the walls. It’s the middle of the afternoon, but the restaurant is full of mountain-lovers stopping on their way down from the higher elevations. With a contented grin, Marie-Claude Pochon says, “I belong to the Gourmettes de Sierre, a ladies-only gourmet club. We come every year. I am fascinated by the crocus and try to buy as much saffron as possible.”
At the next table, a family enjoys a fragrant saffron fondue. In the saffron parfait, the spice, disguised as a dessert flavoring, seems to enjoy its split personality.
The walk down to the village leads through meadows and across bisses, manmade streams that are the centuries-old irrigation system of the region. This is the postcard Switzerland of my childhood: Cowbells tinkle around me, flowers exhale sweet breaths and the sound of running water is omnipresent. Travelers linger at the cheesemonger, then almost miss the tiny grocery store. Inside? Rows of saffron pasta and loaves of sweet saffron bread. I stock up, then ask, “Any saffron?”
The burly shopkeeper’s laugh fills the space. “Today, sold out!” she says. The waiting list for next year’s supply is extensive: villagers who wouldn’t think of cooking without it, the two restaurants, early-bird visitors and some top Swiss chefs, including Philippe Rochat of Michelin three-starred Hotel de Ville in nearby Crissier.
Of the saffron, Rochat says simply, “It’s so perfumed, it’s incomparable. I use it with utter parsimony and sensitivity. Depending on the seasons, we’ve added it to scallops or fish. We also created a Valais pear souffle with Mund saffron. What a success!”
Chef Helmut Schmidt, who once ran Mund’s Restaurant Jaegerheim, adds, “Along the way, I’ve tasted many different kinds of saffron. This one’s special because it’s strong but sweet. No one knows what makes it so good. I let the spice infuse the dish for 10 to 15 minutes, just like tea.”
Outside, the brisk mountain air is redolent of forests and straw. I’ll get back to the lower elevations around Geneva tomorrow. Tonight, I surrender to the spice in my blood and dream of magic carpets carrying mercenaries with saffron bulbs in their hair.
Bigar, a food and travel writer, has left Switzerland for New York. She can be found at www.sbigar.com.