The Swissmade spice more expensive than gold

Was it a Swiss mercenary who first brought saffron to Canton Valais? Historians say the bulbs of the Crocus sativus L. first arrived in Switzerland from Spain in the 14th century, perhaps in the pocket of an enterprising soldier who had flower cultivation and not fighting on his mind.

European saffron production and appreciation has been traced back to nearly 2,000 BC in Minoan Crete, but it wasn’t until the last millenium’s late middle ages that the purple crocuses started popping up in Mund, a village on the steep slopes above the Rhône valley, not far from the canton’s – and the country’s – most iconic peak.

Like in La Mancha, Spain, or in the Italian Apennines, or Morocco, or Kashmir, other select places where Crocus sativus L. thrives, Mund is high, dry, and “boasts” particularly poor soil – the perfect conditions for crocus bulbs to take root. That is, with a little help from cultivators.

In Mund they practice the oldest way, and to date the only way, to cultivate saffron: by hand. Bulbs are planted in September, and harvested in late October, when flowers are picked and the deep red stigmas plucked and dried by local manual labourers. And while global leader Iran produces some 250,000 kg of saffron per year, Mund – the only place where saffron is still cultivated in Switzerland – produces a grand total of 3 kg.

Which makes it rather special. And expensive, with saffron selling for more than the price of gold. With good reason: with typically 3 (though occasionally as many as 5) red stigmas each, it takes about 150 flowers to produce 1 gram of saffron. The cultivated area is small, about 18,000 total square metres on the sunny slopes around the village, often on family plots as small as 40 m2. And whereas other types of cultivation may have scaled with machine or computer efficiencies, saffron cultivation in Mund, with the manual gestures passed down through the centuries, remains stubbornly rooted in ancient tradition.

Mund saffron has earned a coveted Swiss AOC (controlled designation of origin) designation in principle, but in practice each year’s harvest must be freshly analyzed to guarantee quality and provenance.

And unlike with Mund’s European and Asian competitors, almost none of its saffron production heads across borders. The small production is consumed locally in rice, bread and even liqueurs, in family homes and for visiting saffron aficionados at Mund’s charming restaurants.

If you’d like to get a taste of Mund saffron, plan to visit this autumn, when the centuries-old saffron harvest will continue. You’ll be one of the lucky few to enjoy Switzerland’s most sought after and distinctive botanical product – that is, after spaghetti.