Thursday, February 4, 2010

Saffron - What a spice art thou ?

Today, I imagined myself in the valleys of Kashmir, surrounded by rows of croci- specifically Saffron crocus...what a grandeur sight it was. The weather was nippy, and I watched in awe and intent how the beautiful women in bright dresses collected saffron. A spice with fragrance – an apt topic for my writing …..It has a lot of essence to it , beautiful to look at , frail orange-red threads, so exotic to touch and smell and a little goes a long way-almost like love. ..The name “ saffron “ itself sounds so out of the world-taken from the arabic word zafaran which means ‘yellow’. It is rated by flavor intensity and depth of color.

It is the most expensive spice in the world …The main reason being that it takes about 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand-picked dried stigmas of the saffron crocus ( flowers in Fall, member of the Iris family ), to make a single pound i.e. 454 gms ( There are only 3 stigmas, referred to as saffron threads per flower ).This is the equivalent of a football field's area of cultivation (110,000-170,000 flowers ). Some forty hours of labour are needed to pick 150,000 flowers. Whew !! Do I ever think of that when I open that petite box holding this golden spice, ever ?

Human cultivation and use dates back to more than 3500 years now.It is used in a lot of Asian ( Persian, Arabian, Turkish, Indian ) and Mediterranean cuisines ( Spain, Italy, Greece, France and other parts of Europe ). It is also used in perfumery and in dyeing. Medicinally, saffron has a long history as part of traditional healing; modern medicine has also discovered saffron as having anti carcinogenic, anti-mutagenic, immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties. Most saffron is grown in a belt of land ranging from the Mediterranean in the west to KashmirIran, Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy, in decreasing order of production, are the major producers of saffron. Iran with its cultivation of different varieties, is the largest producer of saffron with 93.7% of the world's total production, although previously around 70% of the world’s saffron used to come from Spain, in particular the high plateau between Madrid and Andalucia known as La Mancha. in the east. Annually, around 300 tonnes of saffron are produced worldwide-

There are three basic types of saffron , two of which being the top-grade ones :-

Kashmir “ Mogra Cream “ which is the world’s finest and difficult to obtain .

Spanish “ Coupe “ which is also top threads with 100% pure red saffron threads like the above variety.

Spanish “ Superior “ which is widely available and has 90% red and 10% yellow threads .

Apart from these, each cultivating region has it’s own several varieties…like Iran , which has a number of varieties depending on the shape like Negin Sargol, Pushal Negin, Daste, Sargol, Style .

So, is Saffron my favorite spice ? It might be, given that I love everything exotic and classy – and saffron has been the spice of the kings and nawabs, even used as an aphrodisiac by the Pharaohs. Although that doesn’t mean I try to use it in every possible dish or that I keep on eternally searching for dishes that has saffron in it . But I do use it once in a while, in mughlai dishes and desserts – one of the frequent ones being “ shrikhand “ - although I don’t know if you can technically call it dessert or “ something to end the meal with “ sort of dish.

So, this research of mine online led me to a lot of invaluable information and a very crucial conclusion- Just thinking of the back-breaking labor and sweat that went into cultivating and harvesting this exquisite spice, we could just pause for a moment, to thank while we take a whiff of this elegant spice, everytime we feel like impressing a guest with some lavish dish.

Note- The picture in this post is of Women in a Saffron field in Kashmir. Is there anything more beautiful than the mere sight of this ?