Not far from Srinagar are the crocus farms that produce the famous Kashmiri saffron. We were in Kashmir just too early to see these fields glowing with the purple crocus blooms that produce the world’s most expensive spice.
The special saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is grown from corms as the plants are sterile and don’t produce seeds.
The saffron is derived from the flower but the only parts of the flower that are used are the three central, long, reddish -orange threads, the stigma.
Each crocus corm only produces two to nine flowers per season and it takes 150,000 flowers to produce just one kilogram of dried saffron. No wonder pure saffron is so expensive.
The stigma are hand harvested in the Autumn during the short flowering season. After the flowers are picked , they are taken to the sorting tables. There, the stigma threads are carefully plucked by hand from the flowers.
When harvest is over and the plant dies back, the corms are divided ready for re-planting. Saffron farming is very labour intensive.
Saffron grown in Kashmir is deep in colour and flavour and is not often available for export as it’s mainly all sold domestically in India to flavour and colour foods.
Saffron Honey was one of the delicacies sold in the Saffron shop.
For at least three thousand years or more, saffron has been used as a seasoning for food, as a fragrance, as a textile dye and as a medicine.
It was probably first cultivated in Greece but it has been grown and used for millennia in Africa, Asia, and Europe. It’s now used in countries all over the world.
Today, over 90% of the world’s saffron is grown is Iran although some is still grown on original farms in Spain. A few of the new breed of organic farmers are now adding it to their hand cultivated herbs and spices in New Zealand, Tasmania and California but it is very labour intensive and thus extremely expensive.
Saffron is used in a wide variety of cuisines and there are recipes for many of these dishes on the internet.
Because it is so expensive, it is important to use saffron wisely and tips include:
Steep the threads in hot water or broth for 15 minutes to 4 hours to extract the flavour before adding with the liquid ingredients to a dish.
If steeping the threads in alcohol for a recipe, the alcohol does not need to be hot.
Toast the threads for 30 seconds in a dry pan or for 30 seconds in a microwave on high before crushing them between two spoons to add to dry ingredients.
The taste is bittersweet and sharp so only very small amounts are required.
Be careful about buying pre-powdered saffron because it may have been diluted by the addition of other yellow ingredients such as safflower, turmeric or marigold. These will not add the same colour and flavour as pure saffron. Powdered saffron has a short shelf life.
Store saffron in a dark place in an airtight container.
Do NOT try to use autumn crocus (Colchium autumnale) as a substitute – it is poisonous.
So when using saffron to enhance our food, let us remember the men and women who produced those tiny threads of saffron – by hand – over many hours of dedicated labour from cultivating, planting and weeding to picking, plucking and packing the threads.
Notes by JT Photography © DY of ‘jtdytravels’
More of our travel photos on flickr.com/photos/jtdytravels