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Harvesting "gold" in alpine village

From the outside, Mund looks just like any other little village on the steep, north-western mountain slopes above the city of Brig in canton Valais.

But closer inspection reveals something entirely unique: saffron flowers scattered all around the village.

This delicate, pale-blue member of the crocus family yields the most expensive of all spices - the red powder that gives zest and optical appeal to many classic Mediterranean and Oriental dishes.

The saffron grown in and around Mund has been found to be the best in the world, and carries the same price tag as gold. This is why saffron is often likened to the precious metal in terms of value.

It's believed that the plant was brought here by Swiss mercenaries returning from Spain centuries ago, where saffron is believed to have been introduced by North African invaders.

Saffron needs intense sun, heat and dryness to flourish. The microclimate of Mund is identical to that of the mountainous Sierra Nevada region of Spain, and this is why it grows so well in the village.

There's no large-scale production of saffron in Mund. It requires extreme patience and care to harvest the red saffron powder, and all the work has to be done by hand. The people of Mund don't live on saffron; it's a local "passion" practised by many of the village folk. A saffron guild under the leadership of the local Catholic priest is the force that promotes the village's saffron tradition.

The few kilogrammes of saffron produced there each year are largely used to produce what is understandably called "the world's most expensive liqueur". It's a naturally gold-coloured schnapps called - appropriately enough - Mundgold.

It was invented by Jürgen Rohmeder, a pharmacist originally from Munich, Germany, who has made this part of Switzerland his home. Only a couple thousand bottles of Mundgold are produced each year, depending on the annual harvest. And very little is exported.

Saffron also plays a prominent part in the specialties offered by the local restaurants. These include pasta and rice dishes, and even saffron ice cream!

But people don't travel to Mund for the saffron alone. The area is a favourite hiking destination. Located at 2,000 metres above sea level, Mund offers a spectacular panorama of Brig and the Rhone Valley, as well as some of Switzerland's tallest peaks.

A classic one hour walk leads down from the village to the rail station at Lalden. Halfway along the route is the Gstein Grotto-Chapel.

This is a popular place of pilgrimage and a welcome opportunity to rest and reflect on the beauties of the area. A fountain provides a refreshing drink of pure mountain water.

by Bob Zanotti


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