Jan 3, 2016, 10:57 AM
News Code: 81904541
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New chapter for Iran's Saffron

Tehran, Jan 3, IRNA - Saffron, an ancient medicinal plant and the most expensive of spices, has always had a magical, addictive power.

According to NYtimes, many Iranians believe that in its pure form, saffron works as an antioxidant, an antidepressant and a culinary weapon against Alzheimer’s, cancer and degeneration of the eyes.

In Iran, which produces more than 80 percent of the 250 tons produced worldwide each year, saffron is omnipresent, in stews, kebabs, rice dishes, sweets. A recent visit to a Tehran supermarket turned up at least a dozen saffron-infused products, including cotton candy, rock sugar to sweeten tea and sohan, a traditional saffron brittle toffee.

It is often said that saffron is worth its weight in gold because it is so difficult and labor-intensive to cultivate and harvest. For several weeks every fall, the crocus sativus flower blooms.

At that moment, saffron producers throw themselves into the harvest. They pick the flowers early in the morning, and on the same day gently tease the bright red, three-filament stigma from each flower and dry them. It takes about 150,000 flowers to produce a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of saffron.

Little wonder, then, that the precious powder has spawned a trade rife with the kind of deceptions and distortions typical of traffic in gems or illicit drugs: cheap substitutes, diluted shipments, false labeling. Today, a battle over the future of the “gold of cuisine” is underway, as its world is transformed by speculation and market upheaval.

Several scientists and saffron experts have banded together to form a movement they call “Saffronomics.” Their mission is threefold: to improve saffron production and marketing; to determine its purity and place of origin; and to impose order on an unregulated market.

At a global conference of Saffronomics in Almagro, Spain, in September, much of the discussion revolved around the huge volume of fake saffron in circulation. “The fraud problem is immense,” J.S. Heslop-Harrison, a genetics professor at the University of Leicester, said in an interview. “The use of fakes means people do not realize the special taste and aroma of real saffron.”

There is little concern among the experts that adulterated or phony saffron poses a health hazard. Instead, they are driven by a conviction that such an extraordinary product deserves to remain authentic and pure.

At their meeting, they discussed improvements in fraud detection through a variety of tests- from simple spectroscopy to more complex DNA investigations. They want to know whether saffron has been artificially dyed or whether plant compounds such as corn silks or safflower thistle have been added. They are developing sophisticated databases of adulterants and regional varieties.

The turbulence in the saffron market has intensified. The much-anticipated lifting of international financial sanctions against Iran after the nuclear accord last spring has led to brisk saffron speculation inside Iran. (Saffron is several times cheaper here than in Europe, where the retail price can soar to 20,000 euros a kilogram, or about $10,000 a pound).

In Spain, a major saffron exporter, the market has been disrupted. The country was once a big producer, but has long imported most of its saffron from Iran, then re-exported it as “Spanish.” But in late 2014, the European Union began cracking down on the illegal relabeling of all sorts of products, including saffron.

In recent years, Afghanistan has begun producing saffron. In an effort to woo Afghan farmers from opium cultivation, nongovernmental organizations have set up crocus-growing cooperatives there. There is also a mini-revival of saffron production in countries like France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Austria.

For Iranians, there is only one source: Iran. They are convinced that their native “terroir” – that elusive blend of soil, topography, climate and water – is what makes the crocus fields in the Khorasan region in northeastern Iran so special.