Sunday, November 13, 2011

L'Aube Safran, a saffron farm in Provence

For the last 20 years, we have lived in Northern California where we can easily find locally produced wines, cheese, fruits, mushrooms, vegetables and proteins including lamb, poultry, rabbit, and beef. We are very close to the Pacific Ocean and its bounty of fresh fish and shellfish.

One of my favorite things about owning Bistro Des Copains, the small French bistro I co-own in Occidental California with my friend Cluney, has been the opportunity to meet some of the men and women who are behind those products. Men and women like Jennifer Bice, Burt Williams, Eva Dehlinger, Nikolai Stez, Daniel Schoenfeld, Rick Moshin, Kurt Beitler, Bob Appleby and Eric Sussman to name just a few.

I tell you, you have a better appreciation for the wines and cheese and other products they make when you meet them and learn their backgrounds and how they got into business and hear stories about their struggles with weather, fires, the economy and even movies like Sideways which killed the market for Merlot wines.

The same is true for Sablet, a small medieval village in the Vaucluse where we live part of the year. Sablet is surrounded by vineyards from which the local vignerons make world renown wines. Besides wine, we find local cheeses, a bounty of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, olives and olive oil. We are only a little over one hour from the Mediterranean Sea so there is a plentiful supply of fresh fish and shellfish.

Before we started coming to Sablet, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Tavel and Cassis were just names on labels of wine bottles. Oh I knew these names meant the wines were probably very good but I didn't know anything about their location, history or terroir - special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate gives the grapes and in turn you smell and taste when you drink wine.

Now that we have visited these villages and met some of the wine making families, those names on labels immediately paint a picture in my mind of where the wines were made. I promise you that going to the source adds a layer of enjoyment to wine and food that you can't get unless you have been there.

There are products we can find in Sablet that we can't find in Northern California. As you probably know, the Vaucluse region is a major producer of black truffles and the largest truffle market in France takes place in nearby Richerenches every Saturday from November to March.

But did you know that saffron is produced in small quantities in the Vaucluse? A few weeks ago, we went to Le Barroux, a small village about 1/2 hour from Sablet known for its château perched on top of the village.

From Le Barroux, you have great views of Mont Ventoux.

We came to Le Barroux to visit L'Aube Safran, a small bed and breakfast near the village owned by Francois Pillet and his wife Marie, he's an architect and designed their home and she's an interior decorator.

In 1992, the Pillet's left Paris for Carcassonne to learn about growing grapes and making wine. Diplomas in hand, their search for land to start up a winery led them to Provence where they learned about organic farming and discovered that saffron had been produced in the area between the 14th and 19th centuries.

The Pillets have planted crocus flowers, the source for the stigmas that become saffron in terraced fields of 200 to 300 square meters - 2000 to 3000 square feet around the house. They keep the fields small to prevent the spread of disease. They use no chemical products for growing the crocus.

Lucky for us, the purple crocus flowers were coming up and the harvest was just getting started. The harvest normally occurs between early October and the first part of November.

The Pillets have about 200,000 crocus planted on terraced fields around their property. The crocus flower and leaves appear at the same time during the fall. The leaves remain throughout the winter, dry in the spring and then disappear.

The purple flowers grow from bulbs planted when they are 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter to a little over 1 inch tall. In addition to saffron, the Pillets sell crocus bulbs and say that crocus thrives in areas where vineyards and olive trees do well. I told wife Shirley that we should plant our yard in crocus and start producing saffron. She didn't seem all that excited about this idea.

Saffron is the red stigma of the purple crocus flower and must be picked from the flower by hand. The stigmas are then dried.

Every crocus flower has 3 stigmas and it takes 200 flowers to make 1 gram or 0.3 ounces of dried saffron.

The entire yield of dried saffron from the crocus they have planted is 1 kilogram. In addition to selling bulbs and dried saffron, they also sell a variety of chutneys and tapenade made with saffron.

We didn't exactly load up on saffron at L'Aube Safran, its the most expensive spice in the world and a little goes a long way, but we did buy some small bottles for gifts and to use at home. This 2 gram - 0.6 ounce bottle of dried saffron cost 49 Euros or $65.00.

As I said earlier, going to the source, in this case L'Aube Safran, and seeing what it takes to produce the dried saffron we add almost without thinking to dishes like Paella, Bouillabaisse, and Risotto Milanese will make those dishes taste even better the next time.

I think we sometimes take for granted what it takes for a farmer or other artisan to get those fresh fruits and vegetables, olives, olive oil, spices and other foods we enjoy to your favorite market in Provence or where you live; I know I do.

Bonne journée mes amis et à très bientôt.


  1. Never been there, have to go - thanks for sharing this Michel!

  2. Gosh yes. What a fascinating post, Michel! Loved it and your pics too! Thank you.

  3. Michel, are you in Sablet now? We are currently staying in a maison in Ménerbes. Although we've been here before, your blogs on the Vaucluse region are helping us discover some really great places. Thanks!

  4. Very cool. This reminds me that I have a box of saffron in my cupboard that needs to be used before it expires. What shall I make...?

  5. Another great post Michel! I had no idea of all the work behind saffron. And I agree, your are very lucky to own Bistro Des Copains and meet all those people behind the products - what a wonderful experience!

  6. Barbara - It is definitely worthwhile to go during the harvest so you can see how saffron is produced. You also know that when you buy from L'Aube Safran that you are getting pure saffron not cut with anything else.

    Claudia - Thanks so much!

    Lee - No, unfortunately, we are back in Northern California. I am glad you are find my blog to be useful for your visit. I am curious what Menerbes is like in mid-November?

    Camille - Thanks! Lots of options for saffron. I made a pasta after writing the post with a saffron cream sauce. It was tasty.

    Tuula - You don't realize how much work it is till you watch the whole process. We have been very fortunate to meet some wonderful people and make life time friends through Bistro Des Copains.

  7. Living on a farm I have learned that it is the basic product that makes ALL THE DIFFERENCE. My personal philosophy is to pay more for QUALITY whose origin and production I am familiar with. I would rather eat an excellent steak (lamb chop!) once every 3 weeks than a mediocre one weekly :) The same holds true for saffron...when we know what it entails to produce, it makes the Paella that much more delicious!

  8. labergerebasque - I am sure you and the sheepfarmer are uniquely able to relate to how much work it takes to get a quality food product to the table. I am so thankful there are people like the two of you.

  9. I would be happy to tell you about Menerbes in November. If you would like, email me at

  10. I just found this blog by chance, and we are huge fans of L'Aube Safran, and actually heading there on Friday. We live in Geneva, Switzerland, so for us it is so is a must to go to. I could live there.

  11. Lee - Thanks for stopping in to visit and leaving a comment. I need to catch up with you about Menerbes.

    Anonymous - We will be back in Sablet in October and will be visiting L'Aube Safran then. It will probably be too early for safran harvest but it's always nice to go out to Le Barroux.