Portrait of a Saffron Flower ©Unfolding Provence

Saffron. The word conjures up exotic countries and dishes, the middle east and tales from 1001 Nights. It also brings to mind the beautiful saffron robes Buddhist monks wear.

It’s nickname is red gold. Evocative isn’t it?

So when I discovered saffron is grown down the road in Entrechaux at the foot of Mont Ventoux, I was surprised.

One cool October morning, eager to find out more, I joined a small group in a field planted with Crocus sativus, the cultivated crocus that produces the spice.

Pascal Arvicus who runs ‘L’or rouge des 3 rivières’ is le safranier, the grower of saffron in a field called une safranerie.

He welcomed us and led us to rows of raised beds.

At first, all we could see was earth with a few wild herbs growing here and there, a sign herbicides are proscribed on his land. His production is strictly organic.

Then as we looked more closely, we noticed thin whitish stems sticking out of the ground with at its top, folded petals a beautiful shade of violet, ready to open at the first ray of sun.

Violet Saffron flower with Dew ©Unfolding Provence

A few years ago, Pascal Arvicus moved to the south of France from his native Belgium.

One day, on seeing the beautiful flower in a friend’s garden and breathing in its distinctive perfume, he decided to investigate if it was possible to cultivate it locally.

The reply was a resounding yes. It used to grow in this area from the middle ages until the late 19th century.

Another safranier told me they researched and launched their new activity after viewing a TV documentary that stated you can grow saffron if you can grow grapes in your field. 

A Brief history of saffron in Vaucluse

In the 14th century, Monsieur de Porchères of Avignon brought back corms of Crocus sativus in his suitcase.

By the 17th century, Carpentras to the south of Mont Ventoux had become a thriving centre with 160 registered growers that stopped when, two centuries later, rodent infestations and a wave of freezing temperatures made it all but disappear.

Nowadays, a renewed interest in the spice has led a few passionate growers to start the saffron adventure locally, in Haut Vaucluse and the southern part of la Drôme. 

What does it take to grow saffron

Pascal explained how he prepared the land (there was, guess what, a vineyard there!), planted thousands of corms in late spring and tended the field.

Then typically from mid-October till early November, it’s harvest time.

The flowers need to be picked first thing in the morning still closed to protect the aroma of the prized stigmas also known as threads.
Picking Saffron Flowers ©Unfolding Provence

Later on, that same day, delicate fingers pry open each flower to extract the pistil made up of 3 red stigmas or threads. The 3 yellow stamens are discarded.

Pascal carried on telling us stigmas are then gently dried in an oven to help conserve it longer and to develop the complex organoleptic properties of the spice, its qualities in terms of taste, color, perfume and feel.

Then they are carefully weighted, added to jars and labelled.

After a rest of a few weeks to let the spice mature, they are sold via his ecommerce site, at food festivals and local producers’ markets.

Cultivating saffron is a labour intensive task. All done by hand. With love.

Basket filled with Saffron Flowers ©Unfolding Provence

To obtain 1 gram of dried saffron, you need between 150 to 180 flowers. 5 gr of fresh saffron gives 1 gram of dried saffron!

This explains the high cost but his final product is top notch, a winner of prizes and sought by chefs and repeat customers.

It also carries the label ISO 3632, a sure sign it meets quality standards. 

A little goes a long way

The expensive price tag often blinds us to the fact a little saffron goes a long way.

We think about the astronomical cost of 1 kg of spice but in practice, to impart the alluring flavour to a dish, to colour it or both, you only need a few threads.

Recipes use various doses and sweet dishes tend to use less saffron than savoury ones but the universal dose is 0.1 g for 4 people. That’s around 15 pistils or 45 stigmas or threads.

Recommendations to make the most of your saffron

  1. Buy the best quality you can find, in thread form. Powder forms can include other substances!
  2. Reduce the dried saffron to a powder before you infuse it.
    Cut 2 pieces of waxing paper*. Place one on a plate, add the threads in the middle and cover with the second piece of waxing paper. With the back of a tablespoon, gently break down the threads to a powder.
  3. Now, all you need to do is carefully transfer the saffron to a cup in which you add 5 cl of warm liquid. It can be, for example, water, milk, wine or stock. Cover the cup with a saucer to retain the aromatics and let the saffron infuse for at least 4 hours or better, start the day before you need to use it.
  4. Add the infusion of saffron including the threads 5 to 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time.
  5. Avoid using wooden spoons when cooking with saffron: they absorb the aromas.
  6. Enjoy!


What can you do with saffron?

Until recently I didn’t know how to use saffron nor where to use it so I avoided it.

Now, I’m discovering it’s versatile.

Its presence imparts a glorious yellow-orangey colour and it works well with both sweet and savoury dishes.

Its warm and fruity flavour with a touch of bitterness adds a sophisticated touch.

The spice shines in classic dishes like Risotto Milanese or Paella Valencia where it plays a leading role but it also enhances flavours and marries well with pears, cardamom, rice, milk and many other ingredients.

After the visit, Pascal passed around some meringues flavoured with his saffron made especially for the occasion by a local pâtissier. I love meringues with pine nuts but this was a revelation. The spice’s unique, complex flavour came through with every bite. I went for seconds! 

A recipe to try: Chickpea spread with saffron

The day before, infuse 20 pistils reduced to powder in the juice of one lemon.

On the day, mix the infusion including the pistils with 400 g cooked chickpeas, 50 g powdered almonds, 10 g sesame seeds, 15 cl olive oil, salt and pepper.

Spread on good grilled bread.

The recipe did not specify what to drink with it! 

Saffron is an ally for our well-being

Saffron is well known in the kitchen but it’s easy to overlook its medicinal properties.

Studies have shown saffron is effective when dealing with depression and period pains.

It’s also a strong antioxidant that can help fight inflammation. And inflammation is a hot topic at the moment: it has been found to cause degenerative illnesses.

Below is a short list of references regarding research in saffron’s medicinal uses but a word of caution, it’s not recommended to consume it in large quantities. 


It’s worth adopting saffron in your kitchen, don’t you think?

A visit to Pascal Arvicus’s safranerie is an enjoyable way to spend an autumnal morning. His enthusiasm for his red gold is infectious. You’ll discover how special his saffron is.

If you are in Provence the second half of October during harvest time, go to his Facebook page to find out when the next visit is.

Along with black diamonds and blue gold, we now have here in Provence, red gold.

What’s not to like!

Can you guess what black diamonds and blue gold are? 


Pascal Arvicus of L’Or Rouge des 3 Rivières in Entrechaux
Website: www.or3r.fr
Facebook page 

Medicinal properties of Saffron


Another safranier in Vaucluse

Safran d’Ici…de la vigne au safran – 84820 Visan T. 04 90 41 94 23 / 06 17 94 76 73 herve.couston@aliceadsl.fr
*A special thank you to Nathalie Couston for her tip on how to gently reduce the saffron threads to powder. Nathalie and Hervé Couston sell their saffron at producers’ markets and in winter, at the famous truffle market in Richerenches.