Why is Saffron the most expensive spice in the world?

'Zaafran Kahwa' was the inspiration behind our Saffron Cold Brew Elixir

Paella, Biryani, and Risotto. These dishes are often the main context in which a lot of people understand how to use saffron: generally for cooking and mainly in rich, celebratory dishes. For Kashmiris though; Saffron carries an association with home and tea-based celebrations and that’s why I launched the Botanical Cold Brew range with Saffron Elixir.

Before I jump into the Kashmir connection - let me clear some things up for you Saffron newbies. 

SAFFRON : WHO, WHAT, WHERE?

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world mainly because of the labour intensive nature of growing & harvesting it. 

  1. It’s not self propagating through regular pollination. It needs human intervention because it’s a ‘sterile’ plant, which means it has to be intentionally planted, grown and cared for. 

  2. It’s also incredibly sensitive - it needs to be harvested by hand once it blooms and there is a 1 month window in which this can be done. Much like tea harvesting - this work can’t be replaced by machines and automation because the flower is delicate. 

  3. To add complication to the matter, in Kashmiri Saffron fields, the flowers are plucked before sunrise to avoid the direct sun diminishing the strength of colour of the the 3 stigmas each flower produces. Although the harvest is in Autumn; Pampore - the Saffron town of Kashmir - is over 1,500 ft above sea level which makes the sun fierce. 

  4. Roughly 120 - 150 flowers are plucked to produce 1 g of Kashmiri Saffron. While the most efficient crops of Saffron will generate 5 kg of Saffron per acre - some farms can only generate 1 - 2 kg’s because of how arduous the work, transport & storage challenges and the impact of climate change on the crops.  

Apart from Kashmir, Saffron grows in a few places in the world and yet around 90% of the world’s Saffron comes from Iran. I could make the highly subjective argument that while the Saffron crop in Kashmir is small, it is still the best - but the world has enough conflict so let’s just agree that all Saffron is great as long as it’s natural & real. What we do know, according to the renowned author Marryam Reshii, in her book The Flavour of Spice: “is that Kashmiri Saffron has the thickest, longest stigmas and that the flavour is far stronger than its Iranian counterpart.”

Interestingly, Saffron also used to be grown in Suffolk and is why Saffron buns became popularised in the 14th Century. They were traditionally baked for Easter celebrations although now many store-bought Saffron buns are made with food colouring rather than real Saffron to save on cost.

HEALTH PROPERTIES OF SAFFRON

There isn’t enough substantial research into the health benefits of Saffron. This is most likely because, to observe any meaningful effect in studies, you would need to consume 30g worth of the spice on a weekly basis. This makes for some very expensive research for an ingredient which is already very scarce. There have however been initial studies which have shown that consuming Saffron regularly is beneficial for the skin. 

So let’s understand the plant and why it may help. The Saffron flower is a deep lavender which houses only 3 individual stigmas - these are the threads that you buy when you purchase Saffron. 

The main compound in the purple flower petals is Kaempferol, which is rich in antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Ironically the petals are not commonly prized because the main focus of the harvest is the dusky red strands that live within the folds of the petals. 

SAFFRON STRANDS HAVE THREE MAIN COMPOUNDS : 

  • Crocin - responsible for colour

  • Picro crocin - responsible for flavour

  • Safranal - responsible for aroma

Crocin falls into the chemical compound category known as ‘Carotenoids’ - these are the compounds found in plants which are responsible for colour & are commonly associated with skin-brightening properties. Another Carotenoid which you may be more familiar with is beta-carotine. I’m specifically pointing out the Crocin, because our Saffron Elixir has, on occasion, been referred to as “super yellow.” This is simply down to Crocin.

The flavour & aroma elicited from Saffron is unique in its earthy, slightly bitter notes and this is another reason - other than the cost - why Saffron is sparingly used. I don’t believe we should turn our noses up at the bitter end of our palates but, more on the idea of ‘bitter isn’t bad’ in this article here. 

NOW BACK TO KASHMIR. 

My hope with the Saffron Elixir is that you will drink it chilled or over ice and enjoy the infusion of Saffron and spices. I spent almost 1 year in a never-ending loop of recipe trial and error, trying to get the flavour of the Elixir to be as close as possible to ‘Zaafran Kahwa’ : which is the inspiration behind it all.

If you’ve never had it, this is a hot, sweet tea traditionally served as a welcome treat at weddings, ceremonies or celebrations in Kashmir. Unlike most of the world which uses Saffron in cooking, Kashmir almost exclusively uses it for this tea (and of course in Wazwan).

Brewed and served in a 3 foot tall hand carved copper Samovar, the sight & smell of Zaafran Kahwa for Kashmiris immediately evokes memories of celebrations & family gatherings for joyful reasons. I wanted to bottle that joy and share it with the world.

Trouble is; when you Cold Brew anything, the flavour profile changes and what I’ve found (so far) is that it’s almost impossible to have it taste exactly like the hot version. Another reason for the different flavour profile between Zaafran Kahwa & Saffron Elixir is sugars: the whole range is very low in sugar because my goal was to produce a healthy alternative to sugary sodas & iced teas. When you serve Zaafran Kahwa traditionally; it is sweetened with quite a bit of sugar. So while many customers have told me they love the aromatic intensity of Saffron Elixir as a neat drink, you can certainly also enjoy it as a mixer to make a great non-alcoholic long cocktail blended with tonic & syrups or fruit or sparkling water & fruits (or with gin, no judgement here!) I’ve put together a few recipes to make these here. 

Finally, it would be irresponsible for me to not mention the biggest challenge the Saffron world has : counterfeit products. This is an issue particularly because most consumers can’t tell the difference between good quality and/or real Saffron vs the fake stuff. Rather than going into a lengthy explanation about this, I’ll suggest a few brands which are known to sell high quality Kashmiri Saffron, in the UK & abroad, for anyone looking for the raw ingredient. (These aren’t sponsored, I’m just recommending brands which I’ve used personally.) 

Spice Mountain in the UK sells Kashmiri Saffron both online & in their shop in Borough Market.

Mahbir is a UK business which sources Saffron from Pampore and is available here.

Koshur brand is popular in Kashmir itself, offering a variety of Saffron & Saffron based products. 

Baby Brand Saffron is the India-based brand which comes most highly recommended by Saffron experts in India

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