The Truth About (Persian) Saffron
In late Oct 2018 I travelled to the Persian Saffron fields to participate in the annual harvest of Saffron (Crocus Sativus). This experience only increased my passion for this amazing spice, and my appreciation for the countless hours of human labor required to bring this product to our homes and our tables.
It is truly deserving of its name – Red Gold. Most importantly, this journey provided me an intense and deepened connection with my homeland, culture, and the significance of this spice in the lives of my countrymen and women. In my discussions with these hardworking people, I came to fully understand how this spice profoundly influences their lives and their families. Future trade in saffron must be considered with the objective to bring additional value at source whenever and however possible.
I encourage each of our visitors to share these experiences with others.
It is my desire that you will learn more about this wonderful spice and plant product; its origins and its history, where it comes from, and what is involved. It is my hope that you may be left with a greater appreciation for the central role saffron plays in my culture and for these people.
The Persian Saffron Harvest starts mid-October to mid-November in NE Iran and Afghanistan. It is totally dependent on the environment and weather. This recent fall harvest 2018 brought a cold snap and frost to many areas, prompting the saffron Crocus flowers to begin opening much earlier than expected. Some villages were negatively affected, while others were forced into action sooner than anticipated, to ensure the flowers could be harvested and not spoil.
The saffron farmers and harvesters in this region are well prepared to start their hard work very early each day; it was me who struggled to meet their challenge. We drove to the saffron fields at 4 am in complete darkness, to commence work in the fields at the very first dawn.
We live in a digital era, with social media, lots of photos, videos, and articles available about saffron, its origins and its harvest. However, nothing compares or prepares you for a firsthand visit to these saffron farms before sunrise, or the wonder of watching the saffron harvest unfold.
The most incredible aspect and one I never heard about before from third party accounts and various media, were the actual smells of the saffron flowers opening in these fields. It is a dawn filled with a symphony of aromatic fragrance; sweet, warm, calm, content, elevated smells, all mixed and colliding with the sharp contrast of dawn, cold and sunrise. Perhaps these words somehow describe how really good, high quality saffron also makes you feel, and it maybe even helps to explain its reputation as the “Happy Spice.”
Saffron, one of the most expensive spice in the world, has been continuously cultivated and used here for over 3,000years in culinary, medicinal, perfume, beauty and textile applications. There are so many details I wish to share with you, and I will attempt to do so in a series of connected articles.
Saffron Bulbs and Fields
The fields themselves seemed quite arid or dry, and the contrast of deep violet and crimson red saffron crocuses against grey, parched soils was beautiful. It simply cannot be fully captured in any of my photographs and videos.
There are many interesting facts and considerations regarding the saffron bulbs, fields and agricultural production.
Any saffron field is only good for 7 years. The saffron crocus will have difficulty growing after 7 years in the same field, so it is important to plant the initial bulbs in the right space and direction to maximize the harvests.
The bulbs will be planted 15-20 cm under the ground, as this is the best depth according to the farmers’ experience. Bulbs stay underground all year round and while there also regrow or divide to new bulbs.
An average of 1 ton of bulbs are planted per hectare. Bulbs can be successfully transferred and replanted in another field. Once again, these fields are carefully chosen to maximize the potential harvest.
The earlier in the morning that the harvest is done, the better the quality of the stigmas. Both rain and frost will decrease the quality of stigmas. It was quite interesting for me to learn and recognize “once-frosted” saffron versus highest quality saffron.
~170,000 saffron flowers,(~510,000 stigmas /threads) produce 1.0 kg dried saffron.
A good saffron field yields up to x thousand crocus flowers, which can translate to x kg of fresh crocus flowers, x kg of dried crocus flower and x kg of final dried saffron. A good average production is about x kg final saffron per acre/ xkg per hectare.
The saffron flowers are picked rapidly, with the objective of harvesting as many as possible before the full sunrise and warmth of the day develops. The earlier in the morning the harvest is, the better the quality of the stigmas. Too much rain and frost will decrease the quality of stigmas. It is quite interesting to see and to know how to recognize “once-frosted” saffron from quality saffron grades.
I was surprised to learn that “everything” affects final saffron quality.
- The quality of the bulbs.
- How the bulbs are cared for, prepared before and during planting.
- The soil, how it is prepared, planted and cared for.
- The saffron crocusflowers should be picked in a semi-open state.
- While picking, good harvesters categorize the higher quality/grades of saffron.
- Sunlight will affect the sensitive “actives” or “nutraceuticals” in the saffron stigmas, and also reduce the final saffron quality.
- Picked saffron flowers are processed the same day for the very best quality saffron
At harvesting time all family members get involved in the harvest, both the elderly and young. Relatives and related ones that work and live in the cities came back to help with the harvest.
This is often their major earnings for the whole year.
Most are extremely skilled in picking the saffron flowers and can pick it correctly with unbelievable speed. Even the method of picking determines partially the final grade of saffron. Picking correctly is from the bottom of the crocus with the goal to preserve the complete stigmas as this will yield the superior product, Negingrade,full saffron threads.
I can inform you that there is a clear plucking sound that occurs with the separation of the saffron crocus flowers, a music of its own set amongst the people’s chatting and birdsongs.
The flowers are sorted into various grades, then the further laborious task of removing the saffron stigmas from the picked crocus flowers begins. The three saffron stigmas or threads must be carefully separated from the style and rest of the saffron flower.
Drying & Sorting
The separated stigmas or threads are then fine-sorted into the various saffron grades and dried.
The threads are carefully dried to remove excess moisture. Final moisture content is usually less than 10%. The threads are then graded based on quality and characteristics.
- Bunch ( Dashteh)
“Bunch” saffron is red stigmas plus large amount of yellow style, presented in tiny bundles often tied.
- Pushali (Poushali)
Red stigmas plus some yellow style; sometimes joined 2 or 3 at the style, with lower strengths, floral waste
- Sargol (Zargol)
Red stigma tips only. Often marketed as the most valuable saffron format, but that is not true. (Negin,) is the highest quality format.
Long thread, all red stigmas, longer than Sargol
- Super Negin – Paradis.
(Super Negin)– the fullest all red, long thread; most luxurious grade – requiring the most careful and extensive processing requirements.
The saffron is carefully bagged and stored in a cool, dry and dark environment, away from heat and light.
My Final Thoughts
This region of NE Iran and bordering Afghanistan is known historically for the best quality saffron in the world. It is a very precise, detailed, time-consuming, labor-intensive harvest process that requires the cooperation and support of everyone in the local region. It is no wonder that quality saffron is so expensive and referred to as Red Gold.
It was such a memorable experience for me to work alongside these people in these fields and be amongst all the saffron crocuses. The best memory for me was the warm conversations with the farmers and their families, while enjoying Chai (tea) and refreshments with them.
It is critical for the entire world to fully understand that the People in this region are highly dependent on saffron. The value that is brought to them for the whole year from their harvest. For most families, this one crop and the monies they make from it provide for their needs the entire year. In fact, small amounts of their highest quality saffron are often retained and used as “currency” throughout the remainder of the year.
The continued practice of bulk export and relabel does not allow for value added product development at source. Nor does the smuggling of Persian Saffron and bulbs in recent years. Adulteration and alteration of this precious spice continues in many International markets.
This was the main concern of everybody I interacted with at local and regional levels. They would like to be able to further develop the saffron industry and be more involved in the creation of value-added aspects.
They are very hardworking people whom are passionate about their land, their saffron, their families and their culture.