Why you should care
It costs $6 a gram and it goes with your food.
The secrets behind your spice rack: Explore the untold stories of your favorite holiday flavors as OZY uncovers A Dash of Truth in this original series.
Micheline Sylvestre is unlike most saffron farmers. She waits until later in the day, after all the dew is gone, to pick her flowers, while most of her peers pick theirs first thing in the morning. Last year, when it snowed early in the season, she picked 300 as she was shoveling with her dad. Two years ago, she was still finding them at Christmas. But she’s also different for a second reason.
Sylvestre isn’t from Iran, Afghanistan or Kashmir, the regions that for centuries have produced almost all of the world’s saffron. She lives in Lanaudière, Quebec, about 70 miles north of Montreal, and she’s been farming saffron for four years. Her farm, Emporium Safran, is one of a wave of new saffron farms blooming across North America, Europe and even down to New Zealand, where those who cultivate it are also nurturing a budding industry.
There’s a lot, a lot, a lot of interest in saffron.
Micheline Sylvestre, Canadian saffron grower
Canada’s first commercial saffron farm, Pur Safran, opened in 2014 in Quebec. Since then the number of established producers in the province has increased to about 30, according to the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In the U.S., about 100 active farms have emerged in the past five years, and this past March, the University of Vermont hosted a saffron workshop to teach people how to farm and sell saffron in America. New Zealand has five large-scale commercial producers, and the government believes saffron could, in the future, help the country adjust to a changing climate. Britain is seeing a return of domestic saffron after a 200-year hiatus. In Europe, after receiving investments from the European Development Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Kosovo discovered that its saffron exceeded international first-class standards. And the value of the European Union’s saffron exports has almost tripled since 2000.
“There’s a lot, a lot, a lot of interest in saffron,” says Sylvestre. “It’s a very strange, exciting, unpredictable product.”
Saffron has a reputation as the world’s most expensive spice; in the U.S., its retail cost is around $2,700 per pound. That’s partly because it is exceedingly labor-intensive: One pound of saffron requires 75,000 hand-picked flowers.
Although typically cultivated in warmer climates — about 85 percent of saffron is grown in Iran, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization — saffron actually fares well in colder areas. Dry places with distinct warm and cold seasons are preferable, which makes growing saffron in places like Canada realistic. And saffron’s season starts in the fall, so working it into existing agricultural practices is particularly convenient.
There’s also a market for saffron, says Arash Ghalehgolabbehbahani, a postdoctoral research associate who studies saffron at the University of Vermont. According to U.N. Comtrade data, the U.S. imported 46 tons of saffron in 2016. Much of the saffron in the market is diluted, creating space for high-quality saffron production that people like Sylvestre are capitalizing on.
In New Zealand, Jo Daley and her husband are among a handful of commercial saffron growers. Daley wanted to start it out as a hobby, but instead of planting 500 saffron bulbs, called corms, they dove in and planted 40,000. Daley and her husband were skeptical; as far as they knew, they were the southernmost growers in New Zealand. But the saffron thrived. When it was tested for saffron quality, it broke records. “We’ve now got lots and lots and lots,” says Daley.
But Daley is struggling to keep up with the demand. Right now, her company, Kiwi Saffron, does its core business with restaurants, cafes and caterers. It receives requests for bulk orders, but because saffron farming is still a boutique industry, Daley and her husband “don’t have a hope of supplying the bulk product they want.”
In the U.S., saffron farming has a history: Amish communities in Pennsylvania have been growing the spice for 300 years, Ghalehgolabbehbahani says. Sylvestre met one of these Amish producers at the University of Vermont workshop in March. “The place was packed,” she says.
But interest in growing the spice is spreading far beyond the Amish community within the U.S. At the University of Vermont, Ghalehgolabbehbahani and entomology professor Margaret Skinner created the North American Center for Saffron Research and Development. They run a Listserv for saffron farmers in the States, with 300 members at present, including a hundred active growers, says Ghalehgolabbehbahani.
The attention saffron is garnering signals recognition of its economic potential and underscores attempts to incorporate its production into local areas.
In the Balkans, Kosovo’s high-quality saffron has some farmers looking to foreign markets, a USAID case study reported. The southern U.K. used to grow copious amounts of the spice, but that ended as culinary tastes changed about 200 years ago. Now, though, domestic and commercial farms like Norfolk Saffron are bringing domestic saffron back. In Switzerland, the village of Mund has, over the past decade, drawn tourists with its cultivation of saffron.
Daley believes saffron’s ability to grow in dry climates makes it a potentially important crop for the future in New Zealand, which is economically most vulnerable from the prospects of a drought, according to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. Ghalehgolabbehbahani’s conversations with growers in Iran also suggest saffron production regions are generally shifting to the north. That means people on the warmer edges of saffron’s growing region could see more difficulties in its production, while other regions previously incapable of growing it could become more saffron-friendly.
The new terrains experimenting with saffron are facing challenges too. Because the U.S. is generally wetter than where saffron typically grows, crops are susceptible to disease and fungi. Rodents, which find the saffron corm and flower appetizing, are a major problem. Importing saffron from Iran or Afghanistan may also still make the most economic sense if it is cheaper than saffron grown in the U.S., Ghalehgolabbehbahani says.
But Skinner and Ghalehgolabbehbahani are hunting for solutions to these threats. Sylvestre and Daley hope recent research suggesting saffron could improve the treatment of symptoms of Alzheimer’s, depression and premenstrual syndrome will create more demand for the spice within medicine. They’re willing to wait. After all, saffron has the most flavor a few months after it’s harvested and dried. “It’s like a good wine,” says Sylvestre.