Travel: The Shopping Forecast

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The Independent Culture
FANS OF Monet's paintings need not queue to see his floral landscapes at the Royal Academy but can simply pick up a phone and book themselves an autumn break in Spain to see the celaminas.

These are the "saffron gardens" where thousands of Sativus linnaeus, or purple-coloured crocuses, bloom. Their dried red-coloured stigmas are harvested each autumn to produce saffron, probably the most expensive and precious spice you can buy, and used to stain and scent all manner of products, from cloth to cuisine, in brilliant shades of gold.

Native to the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Middle East, saffron is now produced in many parts of the world, including the single producer in Wales that supplies Fortnum & Mason. The major share of the market, though, is served by the violet-hued crocus fields of Castilla La Mancha in Spain, an area which produces up to 40 tonnes a year from individual family plots.

Saffron production here extends right from Albacete in the east to Toledo in the west and from Cuenca in the north to the wine-lover's favourite, Valdepenas, in the south. Castilla La Mancha is undervalued by many Spanish guide books (the Lonely Planet guide to Spain describes the region as having "some of Spain's least attractive country") yet there is plenty for spice-lovers and holiday-makers to keep them entertained, even when the surrounding fields are not in bloom.

One charming place to stay at in La Mancha is the town of Almagro, home to one of the most enchanting paradors in Spain (a converted monastery) and, in the Flemish-influenced Plaza Mayor, home to the Corral de Comedias, a 17th-century wooden theatre. If you visit the town during July you can catch a performance, as this is when the theatre stages the Festival Internacional de Teatro Clasico, but, if you're more interested in saffron, wait until the last weekend in October and carry on a little further north, to Consuegra.

A higgledy-piggledy village, with a castle to call its own and a Don Quixote-esque ring of restored windmills around it, the village is the site of the annual Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafran, when the local saffron season is celebrated in quintessential Spanish style - loud guitars, stamping feet, castanets, lots of lace and, of course, hundreds of crocuses. The truly dedicated can stay on and satiate their passion for saffron with a steaming plateful of paella before retiring for the evening. A loose Spanish equivalent of bangers and mash, paella is a combination of two Moorish legacies - rice and, appropriately, saffron.

If you're just mad about saffron and can't wait until October, though, stay at home in Saffron Walden, the exotically named Essex town where saffron was first cultivated in Britain back in the 14th century. Pick up your copy of the Divertimenti catalogue (0181-246 4300 for mail order).

A 4g pack of Safinter Spanish saffron costs pounds 7.95, about twice the price you would pay in La Mancha.

A cheap flight to Madrid and the bus to Almagro will set you back around pounds 120, meaning that you could start showing a modest profit if you came back with just a quarter-pound of the precious stigmas.

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