Rich purple blossoms glisten on dewy morning, laid against a clear blue sky. These celestial blooms possess the world's highest valued spice – saffron. Our land is graced by its influence as it flies high and bright on our national flag depicting the values of courage and sacrifice. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, beautifully encapsulated its significance by noting that 'Bhagwa’ or the saffron color denotes renunciation or disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work, 'indicating it's religious connotations wherein ascetics take up saffron robes and leave behind worldly pleasures. Kesari adorns Mughalai dishes, with their creamy gravy and luscious meat, whose ambrosial taste is enhanced by the addition of the red threads. Biryani, pork korma, murg Kashmiri and shrikhand have their tastes elevated while the diner savors the blend of health, flavor and aroma. Saffron is essentially the fiery red stigma of the flower, which imparts a tinge of yellow when it comes in contact with liquids. The aroma and color of zafran cannot be replicated or imitated; a feature that makes it unique.
From being used as a fabric dye, to christening the basest of dishes with flavor, saffron is an enigma that speaks for itself. It's health benefits are ambrosial - packed with the goodness of anti-oxidants and carotenoids such as lycopene, it is also a rich source of minerals such as calcium, iron, and magnesium and vitamins A and C. The female part of the flower - the crocus sativus may produce an abundance of several flowers which will further be processed by drying/curing processes before it enters the market. Quality is of key concern, as demand has shot up in this consumerist culture. It is evaluated on the Spectrophotometry report which analyses various chemicals that influence the aroma, flavor and color of the saffron stigma. In tech speak, these are crocin, pichrocin and safanal. There is an odd manner in which the quality of saffron is gauged - the stronger the color, the better it is.
According to a UNIDO report, 'Saffron stigmas are graded on colour, bitterness and aroma, and the ISO 3632-1 classification divides the filaments into four categories depending on percentage of floral waste and percentage of extraneous matter and on the assay results for colour, bitterness and aroma. There is a major cause of concern for adulteration of saffron stigmas; more often than not the packages are intermingled with reddish-orange or yellowish styles which give off a putrid smell and are sticky to the touch. Large bands of this plant cuts across the field of Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, Iran and the cold landscape of Jammu and Kashmir. Each country has its local classification and grading standards varying from 'Sargol' in Iran to 'mancha' in Spain or the Italian 'Aquila' and Kashmir's 'Mongra'. The FAO has recognised the farming system in Pampore which threads the banks of the Vatista that is a treasure house of traditional farming methods that the labor intensive saffron cultivating society has preserved over eons. Known for its 'lazazat', the saffron lands aren't the main source of income for the labourers - livestock, silkworm, fodder, fuel, fruit and mulberry trees line the farm boundaries thereby maintaining traditional agro-biodiversity and enhancing integrated ecosystems’ multi-functioning.
Saffron has been popularized in contemporary times due to the spread of the Kashmiri population to major cities like Delhi where the agglomeration has propagated the fondness for the kahwa beverage. Lightly flavored with saffron threads, the green tea's fresh warm odour emitted due to the inclusion of various ingredients like cinnamon and cardamom, the pleasant taste holds a history of lands separated by conflict. The exquisite beverage is perfect to take in a fresh breath of life in a cold winter evening. Time to stock up the samovars!