The Golden Spice and the Golden Hearts

An aroma often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while the taste noted as hay-like and sweet. Saffron is the worlds’ most sought after spice and it comes at a big price too. It’s also has the distinction as the world’s most expensive spice. But with the price comes its benefits which are many, completely worth the price tag.

The origin of Saffron, the English word is uncertain. It directly stems from the Latin word safranum via the 12th-century Old French term safran. Safranum is derived from an Ancient Farsi word za’ferân. Which is the first language recorded as using this elegant material for cooking thousands of years ago.

Almost all saffron grows in a belt enclosed by the Mediterranean in the west and the rugged region surrounding Iran and Kashmir in the east. The other continents, except Antarctica, create smaller amounts.

The three best regions which predominately rule the Saffron Market of the world are Spain, Iran and Kashmir. Iran produces the 90% of the world’s saffron most of it goes into exports. While as Kashmiri saffron produce is hit by the conflict in the region. Although Kashmiri saffron is widely regarded as the best saffron in the world and at the same time the most expensive as well.

Kashmiri Saffron is renowned for its quality and potency.  Kashmiri saffron has a legend of its own; it’s believed to have been growing before the birth of Jesus Christ (PBUH). During the Buddhist times, it was cultivated by the natives of Kashmir.

As according to Chinese herbalist Wan Zhen, “the habitat of saffron is in Kashmir, where people grow it principally to offer it to the Buddha.” Wan also reflected on how it was used in his time: “The flower withers after a few days, and then the saffron is obtained. It is valued for its uniform yellow colour. It can be used to aromatise wine”.

“In the beautiful valley of Kashmir, fields of crocus sativus have heralded the dawn for close to 2500 years.”  Reads a Kashmiri tantric epic.

Kashmiri saffron locally known as ‘Kong’  is recognisable by its dark maroon-purple hue; it is among the world’s darkest, which hints at strong flavour, aroma, and colourative effect.

Women working in a Saffron Field at Pampore. Picture: National Geographic
Women working in a Saffron Field at Pampore. Picture: National Geographic

In Kashmir, Saffron is only grown in areas which are blessed with ‘the Karevas soil’. Most of the saffron is produced in a town called ‘Pampore’ on the outskirts of the capital Srinagar. Saffron is a must in all the religious festivities in Kashmir. From the early morning Kahva (a Kashmiri Tea) on Eid to the marriage ceremony of newly-weds. It’s also used in the exquisite cuisine of Kashmir, the Wazwaan. It’s the decisive and the crucial factor of the quality of the Wazwaan.

Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Saffron is widely used in Indian, Persian, European, Arab, and Turkish cuisines. Confectioneries and liquors also often include saffron. Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye and perfumes. It is used in cooking many cuisines, ranging from the Milanese risotto of Italy to the bouillabaisse to the Biryani of South Asia.

Saffron has a long medicinal history as part of traditional healing; several modern research studies have hinted that the spice has possible anticarcinogenic(cancer-suppressing), anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties. Saffron stigmas, and even petals, may be helpful for depression. Early studies show that saffron may protect the eyes from the direct effects of bright light and retinal stress apart from slowing down macular degeneration andretinitis pigmentosa (Most saffron-related research refers to the stigmas, but this is often not made explicit in research papers.) Other controlled research studies have indicated that saffron may have many potential medicinal properties

Almost all saffron grows in a belt bounded by the Mediterranean in the west and the rugged region encompassing Iran and Kashmir in the east.

During the harvest of Saffron which is during the late autumn, people of Pampore pick the saffron flowers at a pace, and put them in heaps inside the handcrafted wicker baskets. The mood of the place is festive, the womenfolk singing folk songs, and old men smoking hubble-bubble in the shades of the trees. A touching sight.

The flowers are striped, with the red stigmas being picked out. The flower petals are used by the Animals to as food and the red stigmas make the world cuisine all the richer and tastier.

Not only to savor taste buds, has Saffron also had many medicinal properties.

Health benefits of Saffron

Saffron contains many plants derived chemical compounds that are known to have been anti-oxidant, disease preventing and health promoting properties.

The flower stigma are composed of many essential volatile oils but the most important being safranal, which gives saffron its distinct hay-like flavor. Other volatile oils in saffron are cineole, phenethenol, pinene, borneol, geraniol, limonene, p-cymene, linalool, terpinen-4-oil, etc.

This colorful spice has many non-volatile active components; the most important of them is α-crocin, a carotenoid compound, which gives the stigmas their characteristic golden-yellow color. It also contains other carotenoids, including zea-xanthin, lycopene, α- and β-carotenes. These are important antioxidants that help protect the human body from oxidant-induced stress, cancers, infections and acts as immune modulators.

The active components in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as antiseptic, antidepressant, anti-oxidant, digestive, anti-convulsant.

This novel spice is a good source of minerals like copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese and copper are used by the body as co-factors for the antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase. Iron is essential for red blood cell production and as a co-factor for cytochrome oxidases enzymes.

Additionally, it is also rich in many vital vitamins, including vitamin A, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin-C that is essential for optimum health.

Medicinal uses

The active components present in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines since long time ago as anti-spasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic.

Research studies have shown that, safranal, a volatile oil found in the spice, has antioxidant, cytotoxicity towards cancer cells, anticonvulsant and antidepressant properties.

Αlfa-crocin, a carotenoid compound, which gives the spice its characteristic golden-yellow color, has been anti-oxidant, anti-depressant, and anti-cancer properties.

With so much to offer, and with such grace, Saffron truly is the ‘King of Spices’. Saffron can also be the metaphor to the people of this great civilization of Kashmir. Only hearts of gold can cultivate the golden spice.

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