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Published on Tuesday, 23 April 2013 15:00

Saffron 630px 13 04 23“I buy good marks of saffron to satisfy my clients. They pay quite a lot and they need to be sure that it is not mixed with some colored fibers,” says Armin, the manager of a supermarket in Tajrish, an upscale district in north Tehran.

“I even reassure them by giving some advice about how to identify false saffron from the real one.”

More uncommonly known as crocus sativus, saffron needs no further introduction. Its particularities make it unmistakable: colour, taste and spiced price.

What is unknown to most users though is saffron’s rich history; its usage was first noted in a 7th Century BC Assyrian botanical almanac, but its roots go way deeper, having been sold for 4,000 years before its first recording.

Several historical VIPs have used saffron for its characteristics, including Cleopatra who dipped it in her baths as an aphrodisiac and Alexander the Great who believed it tended to his wounds. Saffron was also used for cough, colic and scabies. It cured the melancholy of Alexander’s troops, and they loved it so much that upon their retreat they brought it to Greece. Recent studies have shown that it is an anticarcinogenic agent, anti-mutagenic and immunomodulating, and also has antioxidant properties.

But the foreigners who were initially exposed to saffron in their travels through Persia also feared that the Persians were using it as a drugging agent.

The highly valued spice travelled a long way. From Persia to all corners of the world, through merchants and military, including China, India (for religious purposes), Egypt, ancient Greece, Rome, France and beyond, being cultivated even in the USA. 

“Since the world began, I can’t think of anything ... that retains such incredible value. Gold. Precious stones. Textiles. Real estate. Prostitution. ... Saffron has been so valuable because it requires such particular growing and climate and soil conditions,” Behroush Sharifi, an Iranian-born importer of Saffron to the US, told the Washington Post.

However, although the spice is also grown in Kashmir, Morocco, Turkey and Spain, the cradle of saffron is still the country formerly known as Persia – Iran. The Islamic state accounts for over 90% of the saffron production worldwide.

“I have always been doing this with my parents since I remember,” said Nasser, a saffron landowner in Khorasan, the region in northeast Iran recognized for producing the most valuable crops.

“The saffron industry is as good as always. It is even better now because people are more aware of its medical benefits and they look for having it in their food.”

Nasser said that the international sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy have had no effect on his sales or prices. His son, Alireza, a bit uneasy to be interviewed for this article, does not share his father’s bright outlook, but agrees that the problems are not connected with the sanctions.

“I don't think that consumption is rising as much as the production rate. I can say this has been so for some years, but it is not related to the new circumstances.”

According to the Iranian Fars News Agency, between March 21 and December 20, 2012, Iran's saffron export rose by 87 percent to $213 million.

Saffron’s exorbitant price is explained by the complex way in which it is collected: each flower stigmas has to be gathered by hand, and there are only three per flower when the flowers are fully open in autumn. Approximately 150 000 flowers – or two football fields – need to be picked in order to amount to one kilogram of saffron spice. This requires up to 40 working hours. 

The potency of saffron is measured by the International Organization of Standardization’s test 3632. The lowest rating is a grade from 80 to 110, while above 190 is considered premium and most likely grown in southern Spain, Kashmir or Iran.

The market prices range from USD 1,100-11,000 per kilogram, with an average price on the Western markets at about $2,200 per kilogram. In the supermarket in Tajrish, customers pay around 3 Euros per Mithqal, which is 4.25 grams.

“The price varies a lot from supermarkets to vendors. The street vendors are the ones who sell Saffron with a lower price than in supermarkets. But if you don't know the vendor you might get fooled and pay for some extraneous materials,” says Soossan, a saffron consumer in Tehran.

She said that the price has not changed much since the sanctions were imposed against Iran, but that it is more expensive than before.

“I think the Saffron consumption rate is rising up and there is a good market for that. Day after day you find new saffron based products in the market.”

Amir, a saffron street vendor in Tehran, is not content with the situation, as he is nowadays charged more from his suppliers.

“I pay more to buy saffron and should increase the price in turn. But if I do that then I'll loose my clients. So I always earn less than the factory, the super market and everyone. If the landowner says he doesn't augment his price he is lying.

“Life got harder after the sanctions were imposed. Sometimes I can't afford my trip from Tehran to Khorasan, so I buy from other venders here and try to sell at the same price so that I keep my own clients.”

Carmen Manea and Dorna Kouzehgar


Last Updated on Tuesday, 23 April 2013 15:09