Harvesting saffron requires a lot of physical labor to get the flowers from the field to final packaging. The harvesting process plus its distinct flavor, smell, and color make it the most expensive spice in the world. It's used in kitchens across the world, as a fabric and skin dye, and may soon be used more widely for medicinal purposes.
Just one kilogram of it can cost you up to R82,000.
It is easily the world's most expensive spice. The next most expensive spice? Vanilla, at about R9,600/kg.
So, what makes saffron so wildly expensive? For starters,
saffron is a complicated spice to harvest.
Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, postdoctoral research associate at University of Vermont, says to harvest the saffron, you need a lot of hand works to pick up the flowers, separate — saffron is dehydrated or dry stigma.
“The stigma is the female part of flower. You have to separate that stigma, dry that. And for all of these procedures, you need hand work, laborers. I prefer to harvest the flowers by hand because I don't like to damage the other parts of the plants.”
Saffron comes from the saffron crocus flower. Each flower has three red stigmas — that's the saffron.
Ultimately, you'll need to hand-pick 374,000 flowers to create just one kilogram of saffron.
The purple flowers only bloom over a 6-week period from late September to early December. There's also a specific time of day to harvest them.
“When we have a higher relative humidity in the air, it can affect the saffron quality. Also, sunlight can break the chemical structure in the saffron. So, we prefer to harvest the saffron early morning every day,” said Ghalehgolabbehbahani.
90% of the world's saffron is grown in arid fields in Iran. But harvesting all of that saffron comes at a price. This is because workers are available and cheap.
“In some parts, it's like slavery, their behavior with
laborers. I hate that, I should say. Based on my experience, they usually,
workers came to the farm in Iran around 5, 6 a.m. and they left around 4 p.m,” said
Most saffron harvesters are women, getting paid a maximum of R36 a day. Saffron is not only grown in Iran. It's grown in Morocco, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Afghanistan, India, and even in the United States. Why the U.S.? Though many Americans have never eaten saffron, the US imported 25 tons of the stuff in 2013 and 46 tons in 2016.
What's so great about saffron? Over centuries, it's proven useful in many situations. Saffron is most commonly used in cooking.
It give dishes like paella its signature flavor and golden color. It's also used in broths, breads, and marinades. When saffron is broken down, it creates a yellow-gold dye.
Historically, people have tried passing turmeric, red marigold petals, and lily flower stigmas as saffron. But the flavor and dye is totally different.
In large quantities, saffron can be a potent, happiness-inducing narcotic. Research suggests it may help reduce the symptoms for Alzheimer's disease, depression, and PMS.