In our quest to discover the world’s best ingredients, there is one that shines more golden than any other. Saffron. The most magnificent of all spices, worth more than its weight in gold, has four thousand years of history that extends across many cultures, continents and civilizations.
We speak to Daniel Salim, whose passion for the ingredient has grown into a unique business sourcing what he describes as the “world’s finest saffron.” This is defined by having the highest Safranal and Crocin content on the market, best shape, length and color of threads, an unusually pungent aroma and vibrant golden color when infused. For only two weeks of each year, Khan’s farmers handpick the reddest and healthiest tips of saffron stigmas with a mastery of skills passed down for generations, before they are meticulously dried and delivered to their special facility.
Hello Daniel. So, can you tell us exactly what saffron is?
There are so many myths and stories when it comes to saffron; it’s hard to know where to begin. The biological definition is Crocus Sativus, commonly known as the “saffron crocus.” The name itself comes from the Latin word safranum and the French safran, which was borrowed from Arabic za’farān, which in turn was borrowed from the Persian zarparān, which literally means golden leaves. Saffron comes from a type of crocus, which is a type of iris that varies slightly depending on the region. It’s the only spice that grows directly inside the blossom itself. It’s always harvested in autumn, wherever it’s growing around the world, and usually in October and February in some regions. It’s timed after the wine harvest and right before the olive harvest. A beautiful arrangement of nature. The flowering period of saffron is about 20 to 25 days. When the flowers blossom with the sunrise, you can pick the blossoms until midday only, because any later and the sun will have the flowers wilted and useless to pick.
And tell us a bit about the harvesting process?
Based on my own observations around the world, 90% of the workforce for picking saffron are women. I tried to study why it’s women, even in the history books (back in Greco-Roman history and the Santorini frescoes) who are always women pictured collecting the blossoms. The conditions are harsh and merciless, and to pluck saffron you have to bend with tilted pelvis and spread legs. Women are much resistant than men and genetically more fit to work in such conditions so they can stay in that position for longer periods of time. I have seen women standing in such position, restless for hours, which is incredible. Saffron harvest is actually a very laborious and intense process, and that is mainly because the whole procedure is manual and extremely delicate, while the time is so incredibly limited.
When the flowers blossom with the sunrise, you can pick the blossoms until midday only, because any later and the sun will have the flowers wilted and useless to pick.
And what about the history and mythology around saffron?
The oldest record of saffron dates back to around 50,000 years old cave art in today’s Iraq, used as pigment for painting. Later, saffron appears in historical documents dating back almost 4000 years by Persians and Assyrians botanical references as a cure for over 90 sicknesses. In addition, saffron cultivation was first portrayed in the Knossos Palace frescoes of Minoan Crete, likely dated from 16th or 17th century BC. It has also been documented that Cleopatra took saffron-infused baths to enhance her allure before seeing a suitor; Cyrus the Great used it to overcome tiredness and fatigue; Alexander the Great used the magical spice to heal battle wounds, and mediaeval monks used it to create a golden glaze to decorate their manuscripts because beside its healing purposes, saffron has also been an important ingredient in spiritual and supernatural practices throughout the history in many cultures and regions especially in Middle East.
Basically; Saffron, what is known today as a spice and what most people are using to grace their dishes with and add a luxury touch of presentation, has long been used as a magical ingredient with divine powers to heal the body and purify the soul.
What’s so amazing about it?
There are over 150 chemical compounds in saffron, and perhaps without knowing the science behind it, these qualities have been recognized by people for 4000 years. For most of saffron’s history and across different civilizations, it was used for medicinal purposes. It has amazing anti-inflammatory properties, and is also a powerful aphrodisiac, boosting sexual hormones to unbelievable levels. In modern times, one of the most significant discoveries about the benefits of saffron is that it slows the growth of cancer cells, based on studies which have been recorded on many major medical sources. However, because it is so natural, and doesn’t have the industrial “Medicine” label on it, I don’t feel it’s getting the attention it deserves.
Another interesting property is the way it treats human skin. From freckles to pimples, to darkness of the skin, it’s like a special magical elixir. It also helps with heart pressure, hair loss… I could name so many. It’s also an amazing antidepressant: saffron is 3 times stronger than the usual medicine (Xanax). In the Middle East, if they see someone with a glum face in the morning, they say “let’s go and have saffron tea and I will fix it!”
Where does saffron grow mainly?
The historic saffron map is centered in Persia, expanded to Afghanistan and India towards the East, and to Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and even a bit of France, towards the West. This is the old path, the main countries. However, China and US are growing saffron too but do I trust that? No! It’s not about quality, I don’t want to give bad impressions about anyone but if you are a country as big as China or America, you have a huge amount of consumers, you can’t pay much attention to quality and the authenticity while you are paying attention to quantity and consistency of mass-production to fill the numbers.
Unlike a country like Japan, that takes its time to pay attention to details and quality, authenticity and perfection, in China and America, they are doomed to break it down in order to produce more, and satisfy their mass of consumers.
Saffron, what is known today as a spice and what most people are using to grace their dishes with and add a luxury touch of presentation, has long been used as a magical ingredient with divine powers to heal the body and purify the soul.
This is the main reason why Khan will always remain as a boutique brand unconditionally, because I know that the second it starts to produce more, that would be the end of our slogan “the finest saffron”. You cannot have both; it’s either quantity or quality.
And how is climate change affecting things?
You can see and feel the effect of it on agriculture worldwide. Every producer claims that their saffron is the best, but the reality is that climate changes and natural disasters are causing the quality map of saffron to change constantly. For example, if the finest grade of saffron in the world is currently growing in Iran, it doesn’t mean it will 100% still be the best next year. Therefore, sadly legendary branded regions such La Mancha, Kashmir, Herat saffron are becoming history, if not already.
No one talks about the devastating flood in Kashmir, India, back in 2014 which wiped out over 60% of the saffron fields; Or the disappearing legend of Spanish saffron, and that there are only, literally handful of azafraneros left in La Mancha; Or the wrong practices and terrible conditions of Afghani farmers; Or the restrictions of Iranian farmers and the imminent drought to occur. Yet, the worldwide demand is rising every day, so what they do? Commit fraud.
All of that being said, I believe if you are claiming that you’re supplying the best saffron in the world, then you must leave national pride aside, and devote huge resources in order to be able to constantly monitor and chase the finest quality around the world, in order to get hold of what you claim to offer. However, no matter where in the world, the best saffron is still produced in the most traditional ways, with basic equipment and the old knowledge. It’s the way it has been passed through generations.
How did you get into this world of saffron?
I’m from Middle East myself and I studied at a well-known multinational university in Dubai making friends from all over the world. After university, students were going back to their home countries but we all would stay in contact, and I was regularly being asked that since I am from Middle East could I send them some saffron, and there were pretty important people amongst them. I used to get it as favor and send it as gifts only, but eventually it triggered something in my mind. I thought, “Ok, if such influential people with unlimited resources cannot get their hands on some good saffron, then there is a gap for such a thing.”
I’m not a farmer and I don’t have any farming background in my family, but I’m a perfectionist so I thought people deserve to try the best available saffron in the world, at least once in their life. Therefore, I started studying everything about saffron, educating myself and exchanging knowledge with the masters, traveling countries, monitoring main problems, misbalance of the market, climate change and natural factors, and eventually, invested in acquiring fields in different parts of the world and experimenting the whole process for many years before even starting the business. Moreover, because of my academic expertise, which is advertising, I was able to detect and connect with that specific group of perfectionists like myself and professionals of culinary world that are chasing the best ingredients in the world, in a short time, with my brand “Khan Saffron”.
No matter where in the world, the best saffron is still produced in the most traditional ways, with basic equipment and the old knowledge. It’s the way it has been passed through generations.
As a saffron producer, what makes good saffron?
It starts with the corm (the word for the saffron bulb), because the whole plant comes from the corm. They must be big and healthy, with the correct color and smell. Then comes the ideal climate conditions and fertile soil, which are incredibly important. If you want to plant saffron in a field, depending on which region of the world you are in, you should leave it to rest for quite some time, or make the soil brittle before planting any, and then up the quantity very slightly each year as the plants naturally produce more corms. Then it’s about just harvesting the healthiest flowers, looking at the color of the petals, the way they shine, the way they are arranged.
When the flower comes up, usually with 6 petals, there are 3 stigmas coming out of it. 3 stamens and 3 stigmas (or threads, as they’re called with saffron). Stigmas are female productive organs, and the stamens are the male ones (the yellow ones). But I will not go so deep into that.
What are some telltale signs of fraud to look out for?
With Spanish saffron, it’s mostly misinforming buyers about the origins of it and selling them dyed and already processed (all volatile oils and colorants are removed) threads.
With Kashmiri saffron, it’s mostly adulteration of saffron threads with mixing and immersing it with inferior substances to fake the look and the taste of good old Kashmiri saffron.
With Persian saffron, it’s mostly mixing the poorly stored old harvests with new harvests, and again adulteration of saffron and many other cases from around the world which I can give you a long list of.
And finally, as a consumer, how do you choose the best saffron?
It depends, again. Whether you are a mass consumer, a restaurant chef or even an individual, I would suggest never buying saffron from a supermarket. For them it’s not about the quality, but filling the shelves, and supermarket buyers don’t have much expertise to choose authentic saffron, let alone the high quality one.
If you see a terribly dark saffron, almost maroon like color, it means that it was exposed to air or direct sunlight, usually. Because it is so often stored incorrectly or packaged unprofessionally during deliveries and this is one of the most important things. If you store saffron professionally, it can even increase some of its characteristic over time, sometimes taking 5 or 6 years to be at its best. The smell of aged saffron slaps you in the face when you smell it.
If you are allowed to touch the saffron, make sure that stigmas are not soft, as this indicates they’ve been exposed to humidity. It should be crunchy if you put it in your palm or try to break it with your nail. Also, pay attention to the shape, smell, and packaging. Glass is much better than tin box, and tin box is much better than plastic. And if you see saffron in a supermarket displayed in direct sunlight, believe me, 2 days is enough to ruin that saffron quality. It should be stored in dry and dark places, just like olive oil and some specific types of wine. So if anyone asks me where to buy saffron if not from you? I would recommend them to find and stay with a trusted local producer, firsthand!