Saffron – The Spice of One Man’s Life

20 Oct 2014
4 min read
In Austria’s beautiful Wachau region, an ancient tradition has been revived and is in the hands of a passionate botanist, reports Eva-Luise Schwarz…

Saffron cultivation in Austria – the very idea is rather astonishing. However, once you’velistened to Bernhard Kaar, ecologist and botanist, talking about his Wachau saffron, you’re not only quickly convinced, but deeply impressed. On a sunny spring day I set out to the Wachau near Vienna. Along the Blue Danube I go past castles, vineyards and wildly romantic nature to Dürnstein. It’s a town with only 900 inhabitants, but every year some 1.2 million tourists come wandering, pedalling or shipping through to take advantage both of the picturesque landscape and its culinary offerings, predominantly the wine. Here Kaar and his wife Alexandra have settled in a disused railway station, complete with seminar rooms, a display garden and a shop. For seven years they have devoted themselves to the crocus austriacus, which once saw strong growth in this region, but was all but forgotten after 1850. All that was left was the nursery rhyme Backe backe Kuchen, still known by each and every child, which lists saffron as a yellowing ingredient for Gugelhupf cake. But Kaar, an EU-commissioned biologist who travelled the world discovered his fascination with the crocus and the legends surrounding saffron cultivation in Austria and set out to bring back the cultivation of saffron to his home-country.

He says: “Saffron is originally from Crete, Greece. Then the Romans probably brought it to Asia. It then cameto Europe via Southern Spain from Africa by the crusaders. According to legend, the knights came along the Danube and brought the first bulbs to Austria on a pilgrimage in 1200.” Kaar’s research took him to close-by Melk Abbey. In its ancient library he found two books that depict saffron production in this region. One of them, a book from 1776, mentions that 4.5 tonnes of saffron were traded that year. The other, from 1797, was written by a monk who noted the unfortunate decline of saffron production and wrote down all he knew about it. It seemed like destiny to Kaar and so he decided to bring saffron cultivation back to life. The Wachau vineyards, with their dry soil and sunny climate, were also a good starting point. From Wallis in Switzerland, where the saffron tradition was kept up for 500 years, he received 100 bulbs, which he quickly nurtured to 30,000. Originally a weekend pastime for Kaar and his wife, the Wachau saffron is organic, biodynamic and now in its eighth season. But the Austrian saffron market is still far from saturated, because Kaar has very specific ideas: “We only sell over the counter. We offer saffron chocolate, saffron honey, saffron salt, saffron liqueur, saffron jam and a saffron Gugelhupf set, all made with raw materials from within an hour’s drive. Here we can tell people what we do. If our products were in the supermarket, where they’d be taken from the shelf, you’d learn nothing about it. But here you can grasp the quality and everything connected with it. All the products come with a story and this story will be passed on to friends when they get our products as a gift.” Why he doesn’t sell saffron in its original form is easily explained: “We refine and sell the products. Because agriculture gains in processing. That’s the reason why the top winemakers don’t sell their precious grapes in the supermarket, only the wine, and then they charge €50 for it. Selling raw materials without processing them isn’t feasible in a high-price economy.” Kaar definitely feels the pain that young people don’t see a future in this area. He’d like to counteract these generation changeproblems. With a Brussels-funded saffron research network he wants to achievethat the cultures in Greece and Italy, which are now coming to an end, are preserved, and that the techniques are described and documented. He says: “In Italy, the commodities are sold too cheaply. It would be so much more beneficial if they developed products and brought these products to the market. Then they’d be able to create value. Otherwise everyone else will benefit apart from raw material producers. And thereby the last remaining saffron farmers in Europe will decline even more, unfortunately.”

Kaar does his part to educate visitors to the Wachau in his seminars. He vividly and engagingly tells groups from around the world about the botany of the crocus, about the culture and how saffron is grown. Through sampling the delicious Guglhupf, saffron apricot jam or saffron chocolate, you get to appreciate the taste and you get to understand what quality means by spotting fake saffron that the Kaars have collected from tourist markets around the world – rather eye-opening, if not mouth-opening. Fascinating also is his account of how to use saffron correctly in cooking. This is particularly dear to Kaar’s heart. “I would be ecstatic if people could think beyond rice. Saffron has just so much more potential. Using it in desserts, such as crème brulée, for example, is just a dream. As a product I would compare saffron to truffle. It’s very precious, you don’t have it every day and you use it selectively.”

The season goes from April to mid-November; the Christmas season is deliberately avoided by the Kaars at the moment. For the autumn harvest, they get help from friends to pick all the stigmas from the flowers within 60 days. “I read once that saffron farmers are the monks of agriculture,” smiles Kaar. “The harvest is an almost sacred activity. It smells of all theflowers, it’s tranquil and you really get the feeling of bringing in the harvest. It’s beautiful work.”

At the moment Kaar is busy holding seminars (currently in three but soon in even more languages ) about the care of his plants and the production of its delicacies. But he also eagerly looks to the future. “Once you’ve recognised quality, you can’t go back. More and more people become aware of and appreciate this quality. We start in the schools by building awareness, because once you’ve developed a good sensor, then fast food actually has no chance,” says Kaar. “Good saffron has more sensory nuances so the more sophisticated the dish, the more important its implementation.” A possible cooperation with top chefs seems not far off the cards. The only question is, who will be the first to win over this passionate farmer, his wealth of knowledge and his enthusiasm for saffron.