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Taliouine

114km (71 miles) E of Taroudannt; 170km (106 miles) SW of Ouarzazate

Nestled in a pass of the Sirwa mountains, halfway between Taroudannt and Ouarzazate, is the sleepy town of Taliouine. At its eastern edge is a once-grand kasbah that belonged to the Lords of the Atlas, the el Glaoui. Although it is rapidly crumbling into an uninhabitable ruin, presently there are still a few families -- descendants of the el Glaoui's servants -- living in it who are usually keen to show you around for 20dh or so. Morocco's saffron is grown in the hills around Taliouine, which are becoming popular for intrepid hikers.

The Coopérative Souktana du Safran, Taliouine-Ouarzazate Road (tel. 0528/534151, 0668/395215, or 6066/979002), represents more than 350 local saffron growers and enriches the lives of around 1,200 people. Tasked with all postproduction, marketing, and distribution of its members' saffron, the cooperative also acts as a quality controller, especially with respect to the nonuse of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. By using only cow and sheep manure and regularly plowing the fields rather than spraying for weeds, Souktana saffron is certified organic, adding value to an already valuable crop. The cooperative is managed by locals Driss and Salah who welcome visitors to their small center on the main highway at the eastern (Ouarzazate) end of Taliouine. An explanation of the production process and the many benefits of saffron is offered along with a cup of saffron tea, and, of course, the precious spice can be bought here as well. It's open daily 8am to 8pm.

Taliouine is a 2- to 3-hour bus ride from Taroudannt (50dh) or Ouarzazate (70dh). The town has one bank, Crédit Agricole, on the Taroudannt-Ouarzazate road, open Monday to Thursday 8:30 to 11:30am and 2:30 to 5pm, and Friday 8:30 to 11am and 3 to 5pm. Ahmed and Michelle Jadid, along with their son Hassan, run trekking tours from their very popular Auberge Souktana (tel. 0528/534074; souktana@menara.ma), located at the edge of town on the Ouarzazate road. Their small guesthouse offers a range of rooms, bungalows, and tents, some with a private bathroom, from 155dh to 200dh double, including dinner and breakfast. Closer to the town, and still on the main road, is Auberge le Safran (tel. 0528/534046; www.auberge-safran.fr.fm; 170dh-200dh double).

Spice Town -- From the Sirwa mountains around Taliouine comes a small but significant portion of the world's most expensive spice, saffron -- known to sell in New York for up to $8,000 a kilo (just more than 2 lb.). The dry climate around Taliouine is ideal for the violet-blue flower from which the valuable saffron stylus is picked.

The saffron plant, crocus sativus, is a cultivar and thus instead of a seed, it produces an underground corm, similar to a bulb. Crocus sativas needs 2 years to produce three to four corms big enough to be separated, replanted, and harvested. Up to eight flowers blossom during the plant's life span (Morocco's saffron fields are renewed every 7 years), each flower with six beautiful blue-violet petals and a long yellow style out of which comes three precious red-orange stigmas.

The plant needs to be evenly watered, and in dry Taliouine, the saffron fields are irrigated 15 times per year to the equivalent of 60 to 70 centimeters (24-28 in.) of rainfall. Harvest takes 4 to 6 weeks, peaking at the end of October when 60% of the flowers bloom over a 2-week period. Though it requires little physical energy the rest of the year, harvesting saffron is backbreaking work. The flowers are handpicked for 2 to 3 hours every morning at dawn, before the sun opens up the flower and the style is damaged. This work is done mostly by women. Once identified, the flower is picked and opened, and its precious style pinched and removed. It takes 140 flowers to make a single gram of dried saffron. The saffron harvest is very demanding, and whole families will work up to 20 hours a day in the field and in drying rooms. Saffron stigmas are dried in dark rooms or over a low fire. Air drying results in a spicier saffron, whereas heat drying produces a stronger fragrance.

Used as a pigment, saffron's deep yellow color can be seen on painted cedar ceilings within the kasbahs of southern Morocco, where it is also known for its healing effects on muscle spasms, toothache, and menstrual pain. Moroccan Berber women use the saffron in a paste that enhances their facial features and enriches the hair.

Saffron is one of the most counterfeited foodstuffs in the world, so it's preferable to buy it in its stigma form. Stigmas must be thin, long, and a deep red color. When put into water, a stigma of saffron will immediately release a dark orange color. In Morocco's souks, and sometimes the streets of Taliouine, you may be offered dried saffron. In Taliouine, some families keep a part of their harvest to sell themselves, so it's highly likely that what's on offer is genuine. If it's being offered much cheaper than the going rate of 15dh per gram, however, then there's every possibility that you're not buying the real deal.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.