Saffron: How the world’s most expensive spice is disappearing?
A Mughal empire spice is losing its aroma in our lives
Muzaffar Rashid Bhat works tirelessly in his saffron field in Pulwama Kashmir. But the harvests are quite scarce and he ends up being overwhelmed by nostalgia, when he remembers the times before climate change and his land produced that precious “red gold” abundantly.
Those aromatic crops of Pampore, a town in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district – whose landscapes exhibit a splendid violet colour during the two weeks of flowering, at the end of autumn, were a gold mine for thousands of families.
“When I was little, after the harvest, there was no free space on the land to sit on,” says Muzaffar Rashid Bhat, whose family has owned a plot of land in Pampore, southern Kashmir, for three generations. On the first day of flower picking we all went out into the fields and sang. This was the most special day of the year. The harvest took months, the whole family worked : parents, brothers, sisters. Now we only need 30 days. “
Muzaffar says that all winter the aroma of this spice was in the house, and the hands of all the members of the family shone like gold from working with saffron. Ten years ago, Bhat collected 200 kg of saffron per season, 20 years ago, his parents collected twice as much. Three years ago, the harvest fell to 20 kg and in 2016 to 15 kg. In the past, only 7 kg were collected. The same fate befell all the farmers of Pampore.
“Red gold is turning grey”: this is how Kashmiri farmers talk about bad harvests. They sell saffron for Rs. 250,000 or $3,400 per kilogram. “Ten years ago I tried to grow apples here,” says Bhat, “but there were no fruits! This land is only suitable for saffron.
Pampore, where Muzaffar lives, calls itself “the city of saffron”. The spice became popular during the era of the Mughal Empire, which settled on the mainland in the 16th century. Saffron was added to golden rice with meat: biryani, lamb stew, rice pudding, and fruit sorbet. It was used as a cure for fatigue.
Even though the spice has been growing here for at least 500 years, residents use it only on special occasions; otherwise it is too expensive. For example, it is added to milk for Ramadan or pilaf for other holidays. Saffron is also the main spice of Wazwan, a 30-course monumental traditional treat prepared for weddings.
“We know how to tell real saffron by smell and colour,” says Muzaffar, I wish I could use saffron more often. But which buyer will pay for it? And I won’t wear a fake, he complains. Saffron is not food, it is a sensation. No wonder it’s worth more than gold. “
The saffron available in Kashmir is of three types :
- Lachha Saffron, with the stigma just separated from the flower and dried without further processing
- Mongra Saffron, in which the stigma is removed from the flowers, dried in the sun and traditionally processed;
- Guchhi Saffron, who is the same as Lachha, except that the last dry stigmas are packaged loosely in an airtight container while the former have the stigmas held together in a bundle tied with fabric threads.
More expensive than gold
“The saffron flower has three parts,” says Muzaffar, a saffron trader. Petals are used in medicines. Yellow fibers are of little use. And the red strands are pure saffron, which is what we’re looking for.”
One flower gives only three red threads, and to get at least 1 gm of saffron, 350 such threads are needed. For one kilogram of spices, 150,000 flowers must be processed. Not everyone is cut out to work like this: dishonest traders in the markets simply dye the yellow fibers red, shape them into bundles, and sell them.
“The irregularity of the rains in the last ten years has caused damage,” says farmer Muzaffar. “Before we used to go to the fields with big wicker baskets, but now the farmers carry these horrible polyethene bags for the harvest.”
Experts blame climate change for the shrinking volume of glaciers in the Himalayan region, greatly reducing downstream flow. A study published in July in the journal Climate Change ensures that the region’s temperature could increase by almost 7 ºC by 2100, according to some scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions.
Consequently, many saffron growers abandon the coveted spice for the apple, which requires much less water.
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