Hidden twenty minutes outside of Marseille in the spectacular hills of the Mont du Marseillais, the tiny village of Lascours is host to fields of what is locally known as “Red gold”, or the Saffron fields of Provence.
When you think of Saffron, you probably think of golden hues, exotic scents, and warm climates in faraway places. But Provence? Olives and Lavender, yes… But never once did I consider it as a viable Saffron growing territory. The Crocus bulbs that are responsible for Saffron (Crocus sativus (Iridaceae) have one very important soil requirement – excellent drainage. Crocus bulbs hate wet feet… So, after all, what better place than Provence with its rocky terrain and hot dry climate!
Saffron Production in France
France is just a hiccup on the Saffron scene with a mere few kilos per year, but back in the day Provence once had a bustling Saffron activity. It’s one of the reasons you can still see many abandoned “Restanques” (tiered planting terraces) around Provence. Cultivating Saffron is a very labor intense process, and with the world wars all the available labor was otherwise occupied leaving the fields abandoned.
Today there are 6 Saffron producers in Provence, with a scattering of other producers across France. They are mostly small family run affairs, nothing in comparison to Iran which produces about 300 tons of Saffron (90% of the worlds Saffron production). Other major Saffron producing countries include Morocco, Kashmir, and Greece.
Saffron Field Visits
You can tour the fields by joining the passionate and delightful owner Delphine Douet of “13or Rouge” (as in “trésor rouge”) every October as she opens her fields and her heart to the public.
This is a family love affair. When we arrived, her mother was in the fields picking flowers… A bit later, her daughter with a cousin showed up to lend a hand. Then her uncle. Next her husband. The harvest season is short, and the blooms wilt quickly. The flowers lose their brilliant color and aromas if not attended to fast enough. Harvesting (and absolutely everything else) is done entirely by hand, organically, so each and every available hand is essential!
In a whirlwind guided hands-on tour, Delphine escorts you to her fields where she describes her planting and harvesting methods, the virtues and many uses of Saffron, how to choose quality Saffron. She then demonstrates how to harvest the blooms and stigmas invites you on to the fields to experience it for yourself.
Delphine can pick 1800 blooms in an hour. It took me about 15 minutes to pick 30 blooms and I thought I was moving fast! If you happen to visit in the month of May, you can also participate in the unearthing and replanting of the bulbs.
At the end of the visit, you will get to taste the products that 13or-rouge.com produces from the harvests. Flavored syrups, jams, salt, and vinegars are available in addition to the Saffron filaments themselves.
A Few Local Saffron Producers in Provence:
Why not make a day of it?
The area around the Lascours, Roquevaire, and Garlaban Saffron Fields is simply breathtaking. The tiny provencal villages have ancient city centers and churches that a worth a quick peak, with a charming marché Provençal that takes place every week in the season. Activities include the “Foire aux Anes” (donkey festival) in May, and the International Orgue Festival in September. The Restaurant L’Origan in Roquevaire has a pleasant terrace for dining on sunny days.
However, what makes the area famous (in an off-the-beaten-track kind of way) is Marcel Pagnol. His two literary masterpieces “La Gloire de mon père” and “Le Château de ma mère” are set here in the mountains where Pagnol spent his youth vacationing with his parents. Make a day of it by hiking in the area and retracing Marcel Pagnol’s steps.
While you are out there, try to find (or not) the famous “La Baumo dei Rato-Pennado” (Grotte des Rato- Penados) or Bat Cave in Provencal and more popularly known as the Grotte de Lascours.