ASKAOUN, MOROCCO (AP) — A 10-year-old boy calls for the dawn prayer in an isolated village in Morocco’s Atlas mountains, announcing a laborious day racing against the clock to harvest fields that produce the most expensive spice on earth: saffron.
It’s mainly older women who respond to his call, making their way out of Askaoun village and its mud-brick homes before the sun rises and into fields of purple saffron flowers whose crimson stigmas will become aromatic orange saffron sold around the world.
“Isn’t the flower just calling to be picked? Look at it, it gives itself to your hand,” said villager Biya Tamir. She doesn’t know her age, but estimates that her body is in its sixties and says her spirit is that of a child.
Though the women’s bent backs ache and their hands are blistered by the morning cold, they sing and chat as they pick the flower that thrives in only select places on earth. Morocco is among the world’s top five saffron producers, with output of 6.8 tons last year according to the Agriculture Ministry, though Iran is by far the largest producer.
The saffron plants bloom for only two weeks a year and the flowers, each containing three crimson stigmas, become useless if they blossom, putting pressure on the women to work quickly and steadily.
Every step is done by hand, and if stigmas aren’t picked out and dried within a few hours of harvesting, their quality drops drastically, making saffron one of the most labourious agricultural activities and giving it the nickname “red gold.”