The search for saffron

On the trail of the world's most expensive spice.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    FIELDS OF GOLD: Villagers pluck saffron flowers in Pampore. The precious spice, which requires 50,000 to 75,000 flowers to produce a pound, has been harvested in Kashmir since the 16th century.
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Landing in India is like falling into a bag of spices. The colors, scents, flavors, and sounds of the place stimulate all of the senses.

Among the most affected: taste. Indian food is known for its strong flavors – like the country, the food is never bland. There are some spices that will make you cry and then there are others that are so subtle that you barely notice them.

Recently, I encountered saffron – the most expensive spice in the world. I happened to be at the right place at the right time when I was traveling in the Himalayan valley of India-administered Kashmir. This is where you find the best saffron, and it is the place from which most saffron is exported to the rest of the world. It is still hand-plucked in the traditional way – and only during a couple of weeks a year.

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I had been asking about the saffron fields since I arrived in Kashmir. I wanted to know where I could find them, and, most important, how to get there. This is not a tourist destination, and getting there can be a bit tricky.

Finally, on my last day, I managed to find someone who knew the owner of a saffron field and offered to drive me there.

The fields are just outside the town of Pampore, about a 20-minute drive from the capital, Srinagar. In Pampore, I met with the owner of a saffron field, Mohamed Maqbol Shah, who was more than happy to show me around. After picking him up in front of his house, we continued the journey in our jeep.

We arrived at what looked like plains surrounded by almond trees and snow-capped mountains. The fields, dotted by small purple flowers, are said to be among the most fertile on the Indian subcontinent. I could see a few workers, men and women, plucking flowers without paying much attention to our arrival. Their backs bent, they were plucking the flowers one at a time and carefully placing them in baskets.

"Everything is done manually. There are no machines involved," said Mr. Shah, the owner of a 15-acre saffron field.

The harvesting and production of saffron hasn't changed since ancient times. One flower has only three red stigmas and two stamens. Each flower is plucked by hand and placed in wicker baskets. Soon after, the three stigmas are plucked together – I was told that this is the most important trick of the trade. To keep their vibrant red color, the stigmas are then dried for a couple of days – in the shade, not in the sun.

I was surprised to discover that up to 75,000 flowers are required to yield one pound of saffron. Now I know why 10 grams of saffron costs about $28. In a world where machines mass-produce almost everything, I can appreciate the labor and care that makes Saffron so special – and pricey.

When growing saffron, irrigation is usually not needed because there is plentiful rainfall. The seeds are planted around August or September, and depending on how fertile the land is and how much it rains, the flowers can bloom for eight years. Harvest time is limited to a few weeks in late October or the beginning of November. After that, the fields turn from purple to green. Recently, there has been a decline in saffron production.

"Unfortunately, there is less saffron because of pollution and urbanization," says Sarmad Hafeez, the joint director of tourism in Kashmir.

Srinagar and the surrounding towns have witnessed an increasing number of cars and houses in the past decade. There is also a lack of sufficient urban and sanitary planning, which may contribute to the pollution.

Kashmir has also had to deal with decades of violence due to militancy. You can't ignore the Indian soldiers standing around the fields. They are a constant reminder that there are still tensions between the militants and the Indian authority.

"There used to be a yearly saffron festival, and we are planning to revive this tradition," Mr. Hafeez says.

The tourism industry has been hit hard after the long years of violence in the region. What once was one of the top destinations has become a forgotten, dilapidated place.

But things are slowly coming back to normal and more tourists have begun visiting the area.

Still, I was probably one of the first visitors in years searching for the saffron fields in Kashmir. In ancient times, saffron was so prized, it used to be called "red gold," and field owners were among the richest in town.

Shah also told me that not only is saffron used in many Indian dishes, but also to make Kashmiris' favorite drink, kahva – a sweet tea made with cinnamon stalks, cardamom seeds, and small pieces of pistachios and almonds. Saffron provides a distinctive, subtle taste and aroma, and adds a reddish color when it's used in food.

Even though the most important part of the saffron flower is the three red stigmas, nothing is wasted.

The purple petals of the flower are used in ayurveda, an ancient Indian medicine. The yellow stamens are also used to make perfumes.

Back at Pampore, Shah invited me to have tea and food – a common courtesy in Kashmir and a gesture as lovely as the region's flowering fields. The sights and scents would linger. I was happy to have had a taste of this place.

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