Saffron – The Super Spice
Mindfulness is big business. Just ask Google. And it’s 661 million hits. But on a small holding in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains just outside Marrakech, there’s a woman who’s found the key to the art of living peacefully in the moment – without the need for a book, podcast, app, or guru.
Eight tonnes of crocus bulbs.
Lin Ducker is an – almost – accidental farmer. But in the six years since starting Zahour Saffron, she’s learned some of the most valuable lessons of her life.
‘Working on the land means I notice everything now,’ says Lin. ‘The green shoots of wheat and barley coming up in the fields, almond blossom against a brilliant blue sky – each one is a little hit of joy.’
Lin, who’d spent her career working as a nutritionist, started Zahour Saffron after moving permanently to Morocco in 2012.
‘I’d been hearing more and more about the nutraceutical benefits of ‘super spices’ like turmeric and saffron in my work,’ she says. ‘Science-based research endorsing saffron’s antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and mood enhancing health benefits. And pharmaceutical companies were also starting to extract the active compounds, including crocetin, crocin, and safranal.
‘I knew using saffron in your daily diet would produce a much gentler therapeutic effect. And growing it would give me the chance to combine my passion for food, nutrition and living in harmony with the earth.’
Saffron was introduced to Morocco in the tenth century and today the country is one of the largest producers in the world – along with Iran, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Spain. But there was a catch: 90 percent of Moroccan production is in Taliouine, a small mountain village in the south. And Lin had no farming experience.
She honed her growing skills with a few crops of seasonal wheat and chickpeas before buying a small amount of crocus corms. When they grew well, she decided to scale the concept.
After buying crocus corms from a saffron grower in Taliouine, she gathered together a small team of workers from the local area, planted the corms and waited for her first harvest.
Zahour Saffron’s first crop in 2016 was just under a kilo and by 2019 it was 4kg. The yield varies each year according to the weather conditions and age of the saffron bulbs.
The harvest is done by hand with Lin’s all-female team starting work just after dawn during the intensive three-week process. Light and air affect the active compounds in the saffron so the crocuses are picked quickly by hand and inspected for impurities before being placed in dehydration machines. The saffron is then jarred and stored in the dark to preserve its active compounds.
Today Zahour Saffron is sold to five-star hotels and restaurants in Morocco and Europe, as well as wholesalers and direct to consumers. It’s also used in Zahour products including soaps, saffron cordial, tea and saffron bitters. Once the harvest is over, the everyday work of composting, companion planting and enriching the soil begins for another year.
Lin works to permaculture principles with plant and animal life coexisting on the farm. Aromatic herbs are interplanted with the crocus flowers to encourage biodiversity and enrich the soil. No toxic pesticides or inorganic fertilizers are used and Lin and her team work to regenerate and enrich the soil year-round by recycling garden waste and making thermal compost using the dung from cows, sheep, chickens and ducks. It’s then made into microbe and fungal rich compost tea which is fed through the farm’s drip-feed irrigation system. Every five years, the ‘mother’ crocus corms are also spent so they need to be dug up and replaced with their ‘daughter’ corms.
It’s a constant, rhythmic process of working on – and with – the land.
‘I love learning,’ says Lin. ‘And also the healthy lifestyle here. We have clean air, good food, our own water supply – and our children and grandchildren. It’s been a good ride.
‘And of course, I worry like any farmer if it’s too hot, or there’s not been enough rain. But I don’t have any control over those things. I have to just hold on to the good moments.’
Back to that mindfulness again.
:: Zahour Saffron is on sale in the El Fenn boutique and we also use it in our food. You can visit the farm by appointment. For more information go to www.zahoursaffron.com