Kashmiri Saffron: The Story of the World’s Sweetest, Most Expensive Spice

A small town called Pampore is regarded as the saffron capital of India. It is located near the capital of Jammu and Kashmir – Srinagar. Saffron or Kesar is cultivated at a height of more than 1,600 meters in Kashmir, its flowers start blooming as early as October. Saffron cultivation is a deep rooted aspect of Kashmiri economy as  20,000 households work intensively to grow saffron, predominantly in the districts of Pulwama, Srinagar, and Budgam. Saffron is a sensitive plant that grows best in damp soils rich in humus, which is the black, organic material formed when plant and animal debris decomposes. Villagers pluck the fragile saffron blossoms and gather them in woven baskets to begin with the segregation process. The lobes, yellow strands, and red threads of each flower are then classified into three groups. The red strands are used to make pure saffron. The strands are then dried above charcoal fire. Saffron is carefully cultivated which is difficult and hence requires a lot of time. The strands of this highly prized spice are obtained from its style and stigma by hand. It takes 75,000 saffron flowers to extract 453 grams of the spice. 

Kashmiri Saffron: The Story of the World’s Sweetest, Most Expensive Spice

Although there are differing tales of how saffron arrived in India, it is popular belief that it was Iranians who formed an acquaintance between our subcontinent and the spice, this is likely due to a rise in their influence in the 13th century onwards, ending in the Mughal Empire. In present day Iran is responsible for 90% of the world’s saffron production. In the 1100s, two Sufi saints gifted a village chieftain with a saffron crocus bulb after he relieved them of an ailment, according to Kashmiri folklore. The saffron-producing village Pampore now has a golden-domed monument dedicated to the saints. The affluent and famous have always been fascinated by saffron. Saffron baths are supposed to have been used by the ancient Egyptian ruler Cleopatra for its cosmetic and aphrodisiac properties. The spice was also utilised in Egyptian embalming and poultices. It was used to colour the robes of Minoan goddesses. Crocin, picrocrocin, and safranal, antioxidants present in the spice, are thought to reduce inflammation, boost immunity, and help fight Alzheimer’s and depression. 

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In Kashmir during harvest season, Saffron often completely covers the floors of farmers’ huts, like a carpet.  Kashmiri kesar was originally used to garnish flatbreads such sheermal, lamb curries, and fruit beverages during the Mughal rule in India. According to Kashmiri natives saffron is a treasured element that is typically blended with curd and served to newly wedded couples on their first visit home. In Kashmir, saffron milk is a must-have for expecting mothers. Because of civil conflict and the large military presence in Kashmir, saffron farming has deteriorated over the years. Saffron production in Kashmir has decreased by 65 percent in the last 22 years, as per the Department of Agriculture. In spite of all of this, Kashmiri Kesar is sure to retain its glory as “red gold”. 

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