04 November 2011

of dal lake and saffron

I recently returned from a trip to Kashmir. It is everything people say it is. There are several things that are uniquely Kashmiri and saffron is one of them. Saffron is probably the most expensive spice in the world and there is a reason why.

Apart from Kashmir, the spice only grows in Iran and Spain. Although Iran supplies up to 70% of the world's saffron, Kashmiri saffron far surpasses it in terms of quality.

The soil required for cultivation is rather dry and bulbs are introduced into the soil in September which give rise to the saffron flowers towards the end of October. These flowers stay alive for just fifteen to twenty days, during which time they must be harvested. Saffron farming therefore, only provides a single crop per year. Many farms in the area use organic practices, both to enrich soil and keep away pests.

I visited Pampore, one of the two saffron growing provinces in Kashmir. Over the last few years, production of saffron has dramatically declined. Most of the saffron farms are family owned and are small plots which are managed by the family for generations - the younger generations have started migrating out of Kashmir and out of the trade which is now seen as unrewarding.

The flowers themselves grow only a few inches off the ground. Each purple flower has three vividly coloured stigmas. These stigmas are the spice, which are plucked, graded, dried and packed.

It surprises me that the Indian government has taken such little interest towards investing in the future of this spice. It also amazes me how other countries take such pride in the native produce be it cheese from Camembert, pasties from Cornwall and so many other foods that have a direct connection from the place of their origin. It is not just an emotional connection, but one of pride and tradition that should not be forsaken.

Kashmiri saffron certainly deserves this recognition and it also deserves the protection placed on heritage foods. The sad fact remains is that if nothing is done about it now, there may not be anything left to protect a few years down the line.

Photo Credit: Saffron Crocus. Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©