Saturday, November 29, 2014

Red Gold

Novelda has a saffron industry. I have no idea why. Then again I don't think there is a reason why York or Bournville or, a bit closer to home, La Vila Joiosa are big in chocolate. So far as I can determine it's the same with Novelda. The best explanation I've seen is that Novelda had good rail connections to the ports that served Europe and the Americas for other products so when the opportunity presented itself to trade in saffron local entrepreneurs took it.

Saffron is not grown in Alicante but in Albacete and to a lesser extent in Aragon. At the beginning of the 19th Century the saffron exchange in Valencia cornered  the market and that's when the traders in Novelda saw their opportunity. Working through brokers in Albacete, who negotiated a price per ounce with the growers, the saffron was transported by rail, in wooden boxes, to the merchants in Novelda.

Saffron is the dried stigma of a crocus, the crocus sativus, and it is used as a cooking spice. Each crocus produces up to four flowers with three stigma to each flower. Those twelve little strands have to be picked by hand. It takes about 200,000 flowers to produce a kilo. This probably explains why saffron produced in La Mancha, and certified as such, costs around 3,000€ a kilo and is sometimes referred to as Oro Rojo or Red Gold. There's an odd thing though. In 2010 Spain only grew 1,500 kilos of saffron yet it exported 190,000 kilos with a Spanish label. 90% of the world's saffron production comes from Iran and Irani saffron is a lot cheaper than the superior Spanish stuff. Spanish labelling law doesn't require producers to say where the saffron comes from, just where it is packed. I leave it to you to guess what may be happening.

In the middle of the 19th Century the Indian market suddenly blossomed. At first the Indians bought saffron through agents in Marseilles and London so the Novelda merchants either set up their own branches there or struck up partnerships with the local traders. The Noveldenses weren't slow in travelling to India though to build up this new business and the Indians quickly saw the advantages of dealing directly with the producers.

At the end of the 19th Century a rash of substitutes and cheap mixes of saffron became available. Trade grew, business became more cut throat and firms merged to ensure their profitability. Businesses also began to develop identities in the way they packaged and marketed their product and distinctive tins began to appear for the first time. Think of a Colman's mustard tin or the Oxo tins as something similar.

As the price increased and the cheaper alternatives abounded small workshops developed in Novelda to sell one meal sized packets of saffron. These “carteritas,” like the tins, had distinctive identities and between 1920 and 1960 reps from Novelda, hawking saffron from suitcases, were a common sight all over Spain. The workshops that produced these carteritas were known as “porches de azafran” The work was habitually done by women working on a piece rate. Most women could pack around 4,000 packets in eight hours. Of course it couldn't go on and in 1963 a local motorbike mechanic adapted an Italian machine to wrap 3,500 packets per hour.

That was when things changed radically. Suddenly there were supermarket chains, all sorts of packaging and the businesses branched out into related items like other spices, teas and herbal drinks. And that's how it is today.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece of research Chris and beautifully written up; interesting stuff.