Travel with any Iranian man domestically, and he will likely be armed with a shopping list from a wife, mother or distant cousin for the destined location. This might include biscuits from Rasht or lemon candy from Shiraz. On a recent flight from Shiraz to Tehran, I expressed concern when an Iranian colleague arrived with two five litre unbranded bottles of lime juice as hand luggage. He seemed undeterred, and after a quick chat with an airline staff member and a friendly approving nod from the air hostess, we were on the plane (I was carrying our consignment of lemon candy). Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city is no exception. A trip to the city is incomplete without the purchase of saffron, often at the convenient airport shop.
At more than $10,000 a kilo (depending on the quality), saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and it dates back to more than 3,000 years. The Moors grew it in Spain and the Crusaders brought it to Italy, France and Germany. Today a large number of countries pride themselves on their saffron-infused dishes. Milan has Risotto alla Milanese, the French – Bouillabaisse and the Spaniards have their beloved Paella. Indian biryani and curry are often incomplete without saffron.
Beyond its importance to the dinner table, saffron has traditionally been used as a dye and as a medicine. During Alexander the Great’s Persian campaign, saffron was an important bath supplement to heal the Macedonian’s many battle wounds. These days, saffron is increasingly used in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.
Saffron is a spice derived from the dried reddish-purple stigma of the saffron crocus flower. The flower has three stigmas, which makes the process labour intensive as each flower has to be individually handpicked and dried. This occurs when the flowers are in full bloom for one or two weeks in autumn. The crocus flowers are removed from the plants early in the morning, so as to guard against sun and wind damage. Adding to the agony (and increasing the price), saffron will lose up to 80% of its original weight during the drying process. It takes anything from 70,000 to 250,000 flowers to make half a kilo of saffron.
Iran dominates saffron production and accounts for around 90 – 95% of the global market. Saffron is one of the few plants that grow in harsh conditions. North-Eastern Khorasan (Mashhad is the closest major centre) accounts for more than 150 tonnes of exports, out of a total production of 200 tonnes. Other producers of saffron are Spain, India, Greece, Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Italy.
Afghanistan also has high hopes on saffron production. The country plans to replace poppies with the legal and more socially acceptable saffron. Potential income is favourable in the longer term but challenges remain. Saffron production is more complex than opium production because it requires hygienic drying and packaging, and the process requires more capital investment. However, Iran remains the undisputed heavy weight in saffron output. Even international sanctions have had little impact on Iran’s saffron trade.
Iran exports most of its saffron to Spain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong and India. Similar to the cacao/ chocolate and coffee industries, the country receives poor payback from its dominant position in the trade. In most cases saffron is packaged and re-exported, where middlemen and speculators play a key role. Of the $1.5 billion dollar industry, Iran’s share barely surpasses $250 million.
If you are a member of the Knesset or an American Republican, and recently did your utmost to avoid Iranian saffron and purchased Spanish saffron, the chances are very high it came from Iran. Producers in South Khorasan export their products in bulk; where it is packaged under a different name, most often Spanish. Due to superior marketing and branding, Spain controls the international saffron market. Sanctions have also locked out Iranian companies and banks out of the global financial system. But with international nuclear talks and the normalisation of banking regulations pending, the Iranians have big plans to wrestle control from the Spaniards and increase their share in the saffron trade. Better marketing and packing will play a key role, ensuring that you don’t have to shop on eBay, or travel all the way to Mashhad for your Iranian branded saffron fix.