From: Alice Taylor
Places to Visit: The Saffron Farms of Berat

Just outside of Berat in southern Albania, atop a mountain, is a farm where Sheme Ruci grows saffron.

I was lucky enough to be able to set up a meeting with him, one Saturday morning at a coffee shop underneath Your English School. Sheme speaks little English, so with the help of a translator, we sat down to enjoy a glass of raki with saffron, and to find out more about his work.

Saffron is a spice that comes from the crocus, otherwise known as the “saffron crocus” It’s bright red stems are instantly noticeable and these are collected and dried to be used as a seasoning and colouring in food. Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world based on its weight, due in part to the fact it takes over 250,000 single flowers to make just 1kg of saffron. It is believed that it was first grown in or near Greece as a result of cultivators selectively breeding plants for their long stigmas in the late Bronze Age. The taste, its hay-like fragrance, and the distinctive golden hue it brings to the dishes it is used in means it has become highly sought after, all over the world.

Whilst 90% of the world’s saffron is now produced by Iran, there are farms dotted through Italy, Sardinia, and now Albania where this exotic and delectable spice is cultivated.

Sheme Ruci started growing saffron four years ago after being contacted by an Italian acquaintance of his son. This individual had an interest in distributing the spice and being aware that Albania had a similar climate to Italy, he decided to visit and meet with Sheme to discuss the idea in more detail. After observing the mild climate, the almost year-round sunshine, and the incredibly fertile land, the Italian was adamant that saffron production should start. Sheme agreed and that year, the first saffron bulbs were planted.

The lifecycle of a saffron bulb is four years, meaning that a crop only has to be planted that often. Each year, for just 3-4 weeks, the flowers will bloom and they must be harvested within this short timeframe. So, every morning before the crack of dawn, saffron pickers descend upon Sheme’s land to pick the bulbs before they open to greet the morning sun. They are then packaged into large, wicker baskets and then transported to the school.

Here they are laid out on a large table and the long, red stigmas are plucked from them and put to one side, whilst the violet petals are discarded. The women that sort the saffron sit there for hours chatting happily as they carry out their work, and I watched them with fascination, their fingers stained yellow from the pollen and the thick and heady smell of flowers in the air.

Once the stigmas and flowers have been separated, the red strands are transported to a laboratory where they are dried overnight. After 12-18 hours of drying, they are then weighed and packaged ready to be sent to Italy. From Italy, this Albanian saffron is distributed all over the world, ending up on the dinner tables of the rich and gastronomically inclined everywhere from Sarajevo to Singapore. Whilst some may say that this stuff is no substitute for Iranian saffron, it is a high-quality strain, the same as the one that is grown across southern Europe and it sells at wholesale for over EUR 8,000 a kg.

After finishing the interview and my glass of saffron-infused raki we departed, hopping into a pickup truck and taking a 60-minute drive along an incredibly bumpy track that took us winding up and around the side of the mountains. The views of Tomorr mountain and the plain of Berat below were utterly spectacular, as were the red and orange hues of the autumn foliage on the mountainside and hills around us. The air was clean and fresh, and the only other creatures we passed on our way were a few plump sheep and a donkey or two.

When we reached our destination, it felt like we were on top of the world with nothing but 360 degrees of rolling hills and mountains surrounding us, with the crisscross of white jet trails above. As I made my way over the rocky earth to the fields of crocuses, the sweet smell hit me before I saw them. Secondly, the sound of buzzing reached my ears, as hundreds of dozy bees buzzed around the open flowers. It really was the most incredible site seeing row upon row of purple blooms stretched almost as far as the eye could see.

I find it wonderful that yet another “luxury” and highly sought after item is found in Albania. Along with truffles, and the burgeoning wine industry, Albania never ceases to amaze me with the wonders that it can produce.