What makes Kashmiri saffron so special, unique and priceless?

What makes Kashmiri saffron so special, unique and priceless?

Called red gold, Himalayan saffron grown in Kashmir is high quality, therapeutic and rare

Red gold of Kashmir, the prized Himalayan saffron being harveted during autumn in the valley Image Credit: Qazi Irshad

Kashmir looks stunning in all seasons but more so in fall. From the tiny plane window, everything looks russet as the aircraft begins its descent at the Srinagar airport. The fields appear like large chocolates with little dried apricots thrown in between. This is actually the harvested rice crop, artistically thatched away in small chalet-like formations. Close to Srinagar, on thousands of hectares of land, farmers get busy harvesting saffron too. The valley is fragrant and bathed in a golden halo. This is Kashmir, variously called the paradise on Earth, at its very best.

Most experts are agreed that the Himalayan variety of saffron, grown in Kashmir (botanical name: Crocus Sativus Kashmirianus) is the best in the world. And that claim is no exaggeration. Kashmiri saffron, colloquially called zafran, kesar or kong is famed for its subtle aroma, therapeutic quality, refined texture and deep colour. It has been a high point of regal banquets — from the imperial Mughals to the British royalty right up to this time.

Stigmas being separated from the saffron flower
Stigmas being separated from the saffron flower Image Credit: Qazi Irshad

Harvested just once a year from late October until mid-November, Kashmir’s saffron is mostly grown in the tiny, picturesque hamlets around Pampore, also known as the saffron town of Kashmir. The saffron fields are located in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, central Kashmir’s Budgam and some peripheries of Srinagar. As autumn sets in Kashmir, it is not uncommon to see village folk headed to their saffron meadows to pick up the delicate saffron flowers and fill their wicker baskets.

Love of labour

Saffron harvest can best be described as labour intensive. To produce just a single kilogram of Kashmiri saffron, the farmers must pluck nearly half a million flower stigmas and to pluck those many stigmas (all by hand), you need at least 150,000 flowers. During the harvest season more than 15,000 families, whose livelihood depends on the crop, get busy in removing the stigmas from the flowers.

Purple-hued Kashimiri saffron flowers being harvested
Purple-hued Kashimiri saffron flowers being harvested Image Credit: Qazi Irshad

It is these golden stigmas that make the Kashmiri saffron stand out. Due to the valley’s geographical location, moderate climate and rich soil, the Himalayan saffron in Kashmir has the longest stigmas of all varieties. Kashmiri saffron also has thicker heads when compared to other types, earning it a GI (Geographical Indication given to specially unique products that relate to a specific geographical location) tag.

How did Kashmir get this special herb?

The cultivation of saffron can be traced back to the first century BCE. It has Central Asian origins and it is widely believed to have been introduced by some of the earliest travellers to the valley. Given Kashmir’s unique agro-climatic conditions, the saffron that grows in the valley is a distinct, vibrant shade of maroon with a trifling purple tint, making it the darkest among the other saffron types — Iranian, Spanish, Greek, and Italian.

Entire families come together for the saffron harvest
Entire families come together for the saffron harvest Image Credit: Qazi Irshad

The redness in Kashmiri saffron actually comes from the high amount of crocin present in it. The amount of crocin in Kashmir’s saffron is roughly 8.72 per cent, while the same amount in Iranian saffron is 6.82 per cent. Crocin is also responsible for the distinct aroma and medicinal property of Himalayan saffron, making it a very powerful flavouring agent that packs plenty of health benefits.

Types of saffron

Within Kashmir, there are several types of saffron but Kashmiri Mongra saffron takes the cake. This is the darkest variety of the spice and you would only need one strand to infuse an entire dish with a rich aroma and flavour. Mongra balances this brilliant aroma with a slight touch of bitterness, lending it an altogether distinct zest.

The other type of saffron, called Lacha comes with both red and yellow parts. The yellow part, also called saffron dust, is the tail of the stamina or the bulb. Yet another type of saffron, Zarda, finds its use in face packs, beauty creams and moisturising products.

Once the saffron bulbs — stigmas — are assiduously plucked, they are quickly transferred to a special Kashmiri wicker basket (a saffron plant bears four blossoms and each bloom contains three marks of stigmas). The produce, is traditionally collected by a family — men and women work together — and is later dried before being carefully sifted, cleaned and packed.

Mutton Rogan Josh
Mutton Rogan Josh, a dish made using Kashmiri saffron Image Credit: Shutterstock

Typically saffron has found an array of uses — both by aristocracy and nobility (given how pricey it is) but now it is used by all. Kashmiri saffron extracts, super-rich in crocin, has been used to stem cognitive decline, and help in memory retention. A glass of milk with a few strands of saffron blended in it is a typical health drink, highly recommended to boost the immune system. Valued as a high quality food colouring specialist, saffron is usually added to fish recipes, cakes, birianis and Kashmiri wazwan. Here is an authentic Kashmiri home recipe for you to try.

There are very few things in the world as scintillatingly exotic as the fragrance of saffron meadows, upon the rolling green hills of Kashmir. What is contained in those millions of flowers, is not only delectable but precious and satiating too.

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