“It’s always a wonderful time waiting for the first flowers to appear as if by magic in early April,” says Jo Daley, who, along with Steve Daley, owns Kiwi Saffron, pioneering organic saffron growers and marketers on the outskirts of Te Anau. “The flowers smell like violets, totally different to the dried stigmas which we liken to a combination of honey and fresh hay. We keep bees and it’s always cheering to see them moving among the flowers as we pick. They’re always happy in their work—no one has been stung yet! It is said that saffron means joy and happiness, and during processing there is always a lot of friendly banter among our pickers, not to mention the most wonderful aroma.”
Saffron’s famous threads protrude from between the petals of crocus sativus, but as there are only 1-3 strands in each one, it takes more than 4,000 flowers to make just one ounce of the spice — hence its hefty price tag. Plus, the harvesting window soon blows closed.
“Flowering season lasts around 45 days,” says Jo. “Mature flowers are picked early and processed the same day to ensure maximum freshness and quality. Saffron likes hot summers and frosty winters. The autumn drop in soil temperature begins the growing process, with green shoots and then flowers appearing in the early morning.”
In Iran, by far the world’s largest producer, Saffron growing dates back 3,000 years, accounting for 90% of the global stock. The remaining 10% is split mainly between Greece, Morocco, India and Afghanistan (attempts have been made to persuade Afghan poppy farmers to grow saffron instead, alas the opium trade is still twice as lucrative), making a New Zealand setup something of an anomaly.
“To our knowledge, we are the southernmost growers in the country,” says Jo. “The soil of our elevated fields is sandy and free draining—ideal for saffron as it does not like wet feet.” High levels of UV light also leads to increased crocin levels in the saffron—crocin is the chemical responsible for colour intensity. Jo has the saffron tested in Europe, where it needs to score more than 190 to be considered Grade A. “We are immensely proud of our 300 crocin score, having not seen such a high result published before,” she says. “Due to the intense red colour, Kiwi saffron is potent, usually only a third of the quantity is require compared to imported product.”
Most commonly associated with cuisine for both flavouring and colouring, saffron is used in dishes like paella, risotto, and bouillabaisse. “It can also be taken as a tea, beneficial for good sleep and general wellbeing,” says Jo. Food writer Oliver Thring describes its complex aroma as “gentle but overpowering, as delicate as a surgeon and as sharp as a bitch-slap”, likening the smell to “hay, the ocean, diesel, bonfire embers and well-rotted apples”. Its intricacies have been capturing the imagination for thousands upon thousands of years—it is a spice that famously costs more than its weight in gold.
Fifty thousand-year-old cave paintings in modern-day Iraq were created using the flower’s dye, while ancient Greek images on the island of Santorini show a goddess watching over a lady harvesting the crop. Chinese writings from 1,600BC mention the flower, and Cleopatra (of course) was a fan. Wealthy Romans regularly added saffron to their baths and wines as well as using it for mascara and offering it their gods.
“Due to its high value, imported saffron is often adulterated with other plants such as turmeric and safflower or dye,” says Jo. “The most common disguise is in powdered saffron.” Saffron has long been held in such high regard that selling a fraudulent version of the flower in Middle Ages Europe was even punishable by death.
Throughout history, the spice has been revered for its health benefits too, its rich, red colour, says Jo, “hints at its medicinal nature, particularly rich in carotenoids, antioxidants that prevent the body from free radical damage”. More than 100 components further include vitamins A, B1, B2, and C, it has been used to alleviate everything from stomach complaints to fevers to cardiovascular disease. Several more recent studies have shown it can manage macular degeneration of the eye.
“We confess to being completely smitten by this beguiling, unique and magical plant,” says Jo, “and are committed to promoting its growth in New Zealand.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces