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Saffron, a spice worth more than gold

Vijay Koul

Vijay Koul

November 15, 2020

Saffron (Crocus sativa) is a spice that is worth more than its weight in gold. Over the past three decades there has been renewed global interest in saffron cultivation for use in cosmetics, the food industry and for its health benefits, which is why this spice has been coined “Red Gold”.

I am from Kashmir, India where saffron is a heritage and cultural part of the society.  In Kashmir saffron is used for all traditions and rituals from childbirth, to marriages, religious celebrations and festivals. My mother used this spice to colour and flavour foods as well as make Kehwa tea.

Kehwa is a tea made from saffron, almonds, cardamom and cinnamon.  Herbalists known as Hakim in Kashmir combined it in some herbal medications. Saffron is part of the rich Kashmiri culture in every walk of life.

 

Saffron known as “Red Gold”.  Photo Vijay Koul

 

Interest piqued

My interest in this magical spice started growing again  when I read in a CNN news report in 2015: “It is the most expensive and sought after spice in the world, commonly known as red gold. At $65 per gram for the highest quality crop, Saffron can cost even more than the precious metal. It requires around 200,000 delicate red strands to be hand-picked from 70,000 Crocus sativa flowers for each pound.” Even back in Kashmir saffron farmers used to mention  that it is labour intensive. To get 1 kilogram of saffron, stigma from  about 150,000 flowers need to be plucked. Each flower contains only three stigmas.

 

Flowering parts of saffron. Photo Vijay Koul

 

There are some anecdotes that saffron was introduced to Kashmir by Persians, but there is a report stating that Wan Zhan Chinese medical writer mentioned saffron in 3rd century AD. In some Buddhist manuscripts there is mention of saffron in the 5th century.

Rajatarangini reports that in Kashmir saffron was cultivated in 725 AD. This provides the earliest source on Kashmir that can be labelled as a “historical” text in this region.

To enhance my interest and knowledge about this spice I have tried to grow saffron in my backyard in Canberra, Australia with some partial success.  I am optimistic about its success in the future. Hopefully I can give more details of my experience growing saffron in Canberra next year during its flowering season around April/May.

 

Saffron flowers from the garden. Photo Vijay Koul

 

An incredible spice

Human cultivation of saffron is believed to be more than 3500 years. Bronze age excavation of the Minoan town Akrotiri on the island of Santorini in Greece has unearthed a fresco of the saffron gatherers (1600-1500 BC).

Saffron is believed to have originated in Greece  and Iran and later spread to Kashmir and China.

Saffron is currently being cultivated in Iran, Spain, India, Greece, Morocco, Italy, Turkey, China, Egypt, Pakistan, France, Afghanistan, Switzerland, and Japan. Australia, USA and New Zealand have also joined the club in the cultivation of saffron.

 

Stigma (saffron) coming out from the flower. Photo Vijay Koul

 

Production

According to Statista.com Iran has produced 430 tons of saffron, which is about 95% of total production in 2019 followed by India 22 tons, Greece 7.2 tons and Afghanistan 6 tons,  Morocco 2.6 tons and Spain 2.3 tons. As per Iran Agriculture Ministry officials, 404 tons of saffron was harvested from 114,000 hectares of land. Source: financialtribune.com.  As stated by FAO World Bank in 2013-2014 the total production in 2013- 2014 was only 239 tons. This is almost double now.  Iran the major producer is the largest of producer of saffron in Khorasan province.

 

Saffron quality

Quality is critical in buying the true and unadulterated saffron for  customers and readers alike. Saffron from Iran, Kashmir and Spain have their own classification.

Iranian saffron is divided into Sargol and Pushal.

Kashmiri Mongra and Lacha .

Grades of Spanish saffron are Coupe and Mancha.

Sargol:  Red stigma whole with no yellow part. It contains the deep red colour of the stigma.  Sargol is very similar to Mongra classification of Kashmiri saffron or Coupe classification of Spanish saffron.

Pushal: This type of saffron is what’s commonly sold in stores and shops. Stigmas are attached with the yellow part. Pushal is very similar to Lachha classification of Kashmiri saffron or the Mancha classification of Spanish saffron.

In these photographs I have tried to show the difference.

 

A visual guide to saffron quality

 

 

(Above photographs of saffron threads are high resolution images taken with macro lens)

 

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has also stepped in to maintain the quality of saffron. Saffron is considered to be pure when it complies with the requirements of the standard ISO 3632 and when no external matter has been added to the natural product. Samples are assigned categories by assessing the spice’s crocin (colour) picrocrocin (flavour) and safranal (aroma) content, measured by specific spectrophotometric absorbance.

 

Health benefits

The earliest mention of its therapeutic use is mentioned in the Assyrian dictionary of Botany written during the reign of Ashurbanipal (668-633 AD) Saffron has always been used as a Folk medicine in saffron producing areas for centuries. Recent studies are boosting interest in its medicinal properties. In modern medication based on scientific literature these benefits are worthy of  mention.

Because of the presence of crocin, crocetin, safranal, and kaempferol which are responsible for colour, flavour and aroma, saffron is known as an antioxidant.

Some studies have suggested saffron is helpful in treating mood disorders.

Some reports show that saffron is good for eye health, especially for age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Saffron is also known for its aphrodisiac properties.

Crocin from saffron possesses significant anti-proliferation effects on human colorectal cancer cells.

Some research studies have shown some potential that saffron may have potential in treating diseases, like Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease.

 

The glory of saffron. Photo Vijay Koul

 

Future of saffron

Due to population growth and more and more known benefits and awareness of saffron the market is expected to grow because of its use in medicinal, perfumery and cooking. Undoubtedly saffron will be the most expensive spice in years to come and true red gold.

 

 

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Sunita Sharma
Sunita Sharma
2 months ago

Very well researched, interesting and informative article.

Mohammad Nasir Khan
Mohammad Nasir Khan
1 month ago

Very informative and interesting article from a great intellectual, artist, scientist, singer, true friend and a humble secular person.

Shereen Pillay
Shereen Pillay
1 month ago

Very informative thank you for sharing. I am in South Africa and i want to try to grow Saffron however locals have not been that helpful. Is there different methods of growing this highly scarce spice?