Among the fields of saffron
Pampore, Indian-administered Kashmir
By Fayaz Kabli
On a cold autumn morning Abdul Rashid Mir and his 7-year-old daughter Ishrat, wearing traditional attire and carrying small baskets, arrive in a field in the Konibal area of Pampore to collect saffron flowers. Rashid and Ishrat are happy to see their field covered with saffron flowers in full bloom. As the temperatures warm through the morning the saffron fields are abuzz with activity.
Saffron has been grown in Kashmir since the Mughal period, which began in the 16th century when saffron bulbs — a species of crocus — were brought from Iran. The bulbs of the Crocus sativa flower are sown on an estimated 3785 hectares (9352 acres) of well drained clay loam land in May and June and the flower is harvested in November.
Ishrat started plucking flowers with her henna-adorned hands. Rashid kept a close eye on his daughter to ensure that the flowers, or the stigmas, were not damaged by the young girl.
Cultivation is an elaborate and painstaking process: The flower’s reddish three-part stigmas are hand-picked and sun-dried before they find their way to the market. It takes some 170,000 flowers to get one kilogram (2.25lbs) of saffron, a precious spice. One gram of saffron is sold for 200 rupees ($3.64).
Kashmiri saffron, known in old Kashmiri texts as lover’s spice, was once the toast of every gourmet kitchen in the country. The spice is used extensively in Mediterranean, Mexican and Indian cuisine. Though saffron is grown in other parts of the world, the growers say Kashmiri saffron costs more because of its superior quality and the labor-intensive process of picking, drying and packing.
Rashid and other growers expect a bumper harvest this year but are also concerned that some people may be selling fake saffron labelled as Kashmir saffron.
Though I have had Kahwa (a traditional Kashmiri sweet tea) made with almonds and saffron many times before, I had never imagined the saffron making process. This time, while drinking saffron Kahwa, the small hands of Ishrat came to mind. The Kahwa felt tastier and the aroma of saffron stronger.