Saffron “Shadi Avar” the spice of joy
Khorasan, Northern Iran, February 2017
Legend has it that when Alexander the Great was planning to conquer Kashmir in 326 B.C., he set up camp one autumn evening on a plain. In the morning, he awoke to behold his army amidst an ocean of mauve flowers that had appeared overnight, as if by magic. The 120,000 soldiers, paralysed by this amazing scene, believed this to be some form of curse and refused to venture any further… Alexander was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the saffron flowers and fell to his knees.
This delicate and fragile flower gained the reverence of the greatest conqueror of Ancient times and his entire army. Saffron stands out from all other spices due to its unique colour. Its name comes from the Latin “saffronum” which itself derives from the Arabic word “zafaran” which means “yellowy orange”.
In Iran, saffron is used in everyday cooking and is even used in tea!
In Iran, saffron farmers compare this wondrous spice to women, sensitive yet demanding and needing the perfect natural environment for the magnificent flowers to flourish fully.
The production of this extremely delicate flower is indeed a true art and the picking process is long and meticulous. The demanding growing conditions make saffron the world’s most precious and most expensive spice. Man has never been able to reproduce the ideal conditions (temperature, humidity and sunshine) required for this mysterious and fragile flower to blossom. It will only bloom in its own very specific surroundings.
Around 30 countries in the world grow saffron, but it is in Iran that the farming of Crocus sativus all started a few thousand years ago.
Nowadays, 92% of the world’s saffron comes from Iran, and more specifically from the region of Khorasan which alone produces 78% of the world’s “red gold”.
So, in search of the worlds’s most sought after spice, we set off for this region filled with 69,000 hectares of saffron plantations …
From the flower to the spice:
Harvesting saffron is a truly delicate art
The harvesting starts with the cool mornings of October in the region of Khorasan, in Northern Iran, when 1,600,000 hands are put to work. 800,000 men and women look out for these fleeting flowers (the entire season only lasts for about 20 days and each flower only lives a day) and also keep their eyes on the sky to ensure that their work is accomplished before it freezes, often towards the end of November.
Saffron is extremely sensitive to light, the crocus’ mauve corolla opens at dawn with the first rays of sunlight and wilts at dusk. Saffron needs to be harvested just before the flower opens so that the three red threads that contain the spice are still protected by the petals, guaranteeing the outstanding quality.
Once harvested, the flower only lasts about 48 hours. A picker will harvest in the region of 2,300 flowers per hour. Once plucked and sorted, this large quantity of flowers will only amount to 10g of threads or 10g of spice.
Over the past few years the changing climate has considerably affected saffron production, making the naturally demanding climatic conditions required for saffron even more complicated. In the region of Khorasan, rainfall has dropped, sprinkle irrigation systems are required sometimes needing wells to be dug up to 150m deep.
A long and scrupulous plucking process
Once harvested, the saffron threads are carefully plucked by hand by local women from the flowers, with great skill and patience.
They part the petals from the threads, by extracting the stalk and the stamen and preciously retaining the upper red part which is the stigma. After 200 hours of careful plucking, 190,000 flowers will have been sorted, 5 kilos of freshly harvested flowers, for just 1 kilo of spice —> which is 5 kilos of fresh threads.
The drying process releases the full aromas
After the plucking process, the threads are dried in an oven or on a brazier. 80% of their water is thus removed from the threads and it’s during this gentle drying process that the full aromas develop and the power of saffron is born!