More than just a pretty flower, the saffron crocus – whose threads are nicknamed ‘red gold’ – produces one of the most expensive spices in the world
The word saffron comes from the Arabic word ‘zafaran’ meaning yellow. It is also called kesar, zafran or Kong Posh, not forgetting ‘red gold’ in reference to its high value by weight often compared to gold.
Red gold rush
Descendants of Dutch settlers to the US have grown saffron since the 17th century. The crocuses are also grown and harvested in Morocco, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Afghanistan, Greece and India.
Early morning work
Climate and political pressures are not the only reason the spice is so expensive. It takes over 150,000 crocus flowers to make 1kg of the spice. Ideally, workers pick the flowers before dawn, then extract only the red stigmas by hand, later drying them.
Saffron can come in liquid, thread or powder form and is used to flavour paella, tagines and drinks. It is also used in perfumes, dyes and medicines. Alexander the Great was said to soothe his battle wounds with saffron-infused water and the spice was used to treat the bubonic plague.
Don’t be fooled
Sky-high prices make it a target for counterfeiters, and even the legitimate product can vary in quality. The difference between a grade I and a grade III product has been likened to comparing a Trabant with a Lamborghini!
Krokos – an area of Greece named after the saffron crocus – ramped up its spice production to provide jobs when the financial crisis hit the country in 2008. The area now produces about four tonnes a year.
When Iran re-entered the global market after sanctions were lifted, prices fell. The lowest price recorded in the past ten years was around $1,700/kg. Renewed US sanctions on Iran in 2018 are yet to disrupt exports.
Colour of money
Saffron has lived up to its ‘red gold’ nickname in the past decade, with prices soaring close to $4,000/kg. The hike was partly caused by Western sanctions on Iran, which produces 90% of the world’s saffron.
What they say
“A man who is stingy with saffron is capable of seducing his own grandmother”
Norman Douglas, British author
“The biggest problem with saffron is that people don’t know about saffron. We want them to think ‘salt, pepper, saffron’”
Ali Shariati, CEO of Iran-based firm Novin Saffron (As told to France 24)
“We’re the main producer and exporter of saffron in the world, there’s no alternative... By legal or illegal means, we’re certain our products will be exported”
Iranian saffron trader. At a conference at the University of Torbat Heydarieh, Iran. (As told to Al Jazeera)
Concerns about climate change and political turmoil in areas where saffron is grown may drive up prices as demand continues to grow. Fears the supply from Iran, which produces the majority of the world’s saffron, could be hit by US sanctions re-imposed in 2018 are yet to be proved right. Kashmir, another region famous for the spice, has experienced falling crop yields over the past decade, suggesting longer-term global supply may be weakened, but production increases in Greece and Afghanistan could help shore it up over time. Iran is not out for the count yet though. US sanctions may be threatening parts of the country’s economy, but saffron traders are bullish, suggesting that as the main producer of the spice, sanctions will have no impact on export. In fact, sanctions may even help Iranian farmers, by pushing prices up and making it a buyers’ problem.