While a small craft gin distillery on the West Wales coast is pretty high up on our romance register, we have to take our hats off to the story of Zahour Saffron, an idyllic saffron farm, nestled in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, a short journey from Marrakech. All the more exciting that we’ve been able to team up with Lin Ducker and the team there and work with their premium grade saffron to produce their Atlas Gold Bitters.
Bitters are a lesser known aspect of the drinks market, beloved of the mixologist and now used to add interest to cocktails, among other things. Like many alcohols, they were originally developed for medicinal purposes, marrying herbs and botanicals to address digestive ailments. It involves steeping the chosen flavourings in alcohol, then combining to create the final product. Working with Zahour Saffron has given us the opportunity to create something really special.
Sparking ideas from herbs
We met Lin Ducker on Avicenna Herbs near Aberaeron. A fragrant pharmaceuticals course, we were there to learn more about herbs, and Lin was looking to develop her saffron and make the most of such precious product. It was a day to make many memories, not least that of sitting outside in the sunshine, tasting our own gin, and gin brought along by the distiller from The Old Curiosity Distillery, in Edinburgh and talking hopes and dreams for the future. Hearing Lin talk so passionately about her farm, her desire to make her saffron go further and to help the local Berber women, creating an entrepreneurial space for them, was inspiring. It prompted us to suggest a bitters product – and the seed of Atlas Gold Bitters was born. Later on, we ran a discovery day with Lin – looking at a number of options for her crop. The saffron bitters idea resonated with Lin and what she was trying to achieve. The seed planted during idle conversation back at Avicenna started to shoot.
Building a home and a saffron business in Marrakech
For Lin, the journey had started several years previously to the day at Avicenna, moving out to Morocco and buying land near to where her daughter was settled. A respected nutritionist in her own right, she spent time developing a house and the land they had acquired – Dar Zahour. Dar Zahour means house of flowers. Lin’s flower-filled garden is something she continues to work on, but she also needed to develop an economic aspect to her property. She initially grew crops of seasonal wheat and then chickpeas. However, living in an area of Morocco where saffron is not commonly grown – with only 2 other commercial growers in the area, the allure of the crocus was strong. One successful proof of concept crop later and Lin was hooked. In 2016, she purchased 8 tonnes of crocus corms from an organic saffron producer based in Taliouine, the main saffron producing region in Morocco 240 km south of Dar Zahour. By November 2016, Lin was harvesting her first significant crop of saffron. In 2018, the crop was 4 kilos.
November is a hectic time – the saffron harvest coinciding with the olive harvest in Morocco. Lin struggled at first to engage enough workers to ensure the saffron was harvested. Many of the Berber women were working elsewhere – but by developing a reputation of paying well, of providing lunch, and offering a place for children to play while their mothers work, she has grown a dedicated and happy workforce. As Lin says:
“Employing locally is a big deal for us. 2018 was our biggest yield so far and we initially struggled to get workers as we were competing with the olive harvest which is also in November – but saffron offers lighter work, and, believe it or not, working with saffron has a reputation for making you happy. We pay well and we’re now told that people want to work for us. We give lunch – the kids can come too – we set up a play station too. It’s becoming an important opportunity for women here to earn some seasonal money.”
This is a key part of her ethos and something we wholeheartedly support.
Romance aside, it’s also a business that requires thought and strategy. Who know that the corms that the saffron crocuses flower from so perfectly have only a short 5 year life. It makes sense that to create something so beautiful and precious requires effort that might be expended over time. Each year, every ‘mother’ corm produces baby corms – but like any mother, she only has so much energy and all too soon, those original 8 tonnes of corms will need to be dug up and sorted out, the original corms removed and those that still have life in them replanted. The crop grows exponentially for those first 5 years, but then starts to fall off if this important step isn’t carried out.
Creating premium grade organic saffron
The very word ‘saffron’ conjures up many images for many people. Arabian nights, the souk, mounds of spice, vibrant and fragrant, precious treasure. Producing premium grade organic saffron is a delicate process. It involves a very quick turnaround – the crocus flowers are picked early in the day, before they have opened, protecting the precious stigmas from the sun. Once the stigmas have been removed from the flower, they are consigned to the dehydrator, picked over by hand to check for pollen or any other debris that might affect purity before being gently sealed into jars. From field to dehydrator can take 60 minutes. In addition to reaching organic standards, Lin sends her saffron off to a lab in France where it is graded – to date achieving grade 1, the highest classification available. This is good stuff and Lin’s keen to assure her customers that when they buy her saffron they really are buying the best.
At the end of the day, it seems that the pleasures of farming saffron in Marrakech are simple ones:
“At the end of the day, we love nothing more than sitting with a glass of cold tonic, a slice of orange and a good glug of our saffron bitters, watching the sun set over the farm .”
Lin’s saffron bitters product is a perfect example of the kind of collaboration we love; and of thinking outside the box to create something that really showcases its raw ingredient. We’re excited to be launching Atlas Gold Bitters in the UK, promoting the product, and selling online. Our initial run is limited, so if you fancy giving it a go, don’t delay!
We’re excited to have worked with Lin and created this very special product. It’s available to buy in our online shop and we’re looking forward to seeing what you make of it! Tag us on social media #inthewelshwind #saffronbitters. You’ll find us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – and for more news from us In the Welsh Wind, sign up for our newsletter.