Saffron, known for its gorgeous hue and floral/pungent/honeyed flavor profile, is the world’s most valuable spice. While saffron from Iran makes up 90% of the world’s supply, saffron grows in just two places in Kashmir. The significance of Kashmiri saffron in culture and cuisine can’t be exaggerated. The story begins thousands of years ago, but sadly, the story might be coming to an end.
Threads of gold
Saffron comes from the crocus flower, specifically the Crocus sativus. These purple flowers hide orange-red stigmas, which is the part of the plant that receives pollen from bees and other insects. When autumn comes around, it’s time for harvest. You need a lot of crocuses to gather enough saffron to make a profit. It takes over 75,000 crocuses to produce just a single pound of saffron threads.
Unmistakable and irreplaceable
According to legend, saffron arrived thanks to two Sufi ascetics in the 11th and 12th centuries C.E. When these men became sick, they were healed by a local, and in return for his services, the Sufis gifted him with a saffron crocus bulb. In Pampore, a town famous for its saffron, you can even find a shrine and tomb dedicated to the two men. In reality, however, saffron grew in Kashmir for much longer. It most likely came to Kashmir thanks to Persians in 500 B.C.E.
You can see the significance of Kashmiri saffron in the cuisine. Since harvesting the spice takes such care, a little goes a long way. While breaking fast during Ramadan, it’s common to infuse milk with saffron. During a funeral or wedding, Kashmiris make “Wazan,” which is a 30-dish meal prepared by professional chefs. To make the meal special, guests sip golden-hued broth infused with saffron, as well as lamb with saffron and chiles. The most important place for saffron, however, is in “kehwa.” This slowly-prepared green tea has other spices, like cinnamon and cardamom, while the saffron gives it an unmistakable golden color and sweetness. Imitations will use turmeric, but the flavor can’t be replicated.
The future of saffron
Kashmiri saffron is currently the most valuable spice in the world. It’s more valuable than its counterpart from Iran. For one pound of saffron, you might pay as much as $1,500. The significance of Kashmiri saffron from an economic standpoint should be noted. It’s an extremely important crop for the people of Kashmir, especially Pampore. However, in the past few decades, the crops have shrunk. Ten years ago, one farmer was able to harvest 200 kilograms. Now, her crop weighs under 7 kilograms. Why?
Climate change plays a big role. While crocuses need a regular cycle of wet springs and dry summers for a good autumn harvest, climate change makes the weather more inconsistent. Droughts mean much smaller crops. Other factors like political conflicts (Pakistan and India have been fighting over the region for decades) and smuggling hurt the industry, too, but it appears that a changing climate is the biggest issue. Other saffron-producing areas like Spain and Iran have more technology and funding that helps keep their spice trade bolstered, but Kashmir is suffering. Will their saffron disappear?
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