The Flavour of Spice: Journeys, Recipes, Stories by Marryam H. Reshii traces the relationship between Indian food and spices. An excerpt from the chapter on Saffron: 

According to Vinayak Razdan, scholar of Kashmiri history and culture, there is a legend about how saffron entered the Kashmir valley. Like many other legends, this one too has its basis in verifiable fact. Vagbhata, the famous Ayurvedic physician who lived in the 6th century CE, had a patient with an eye complaint. No remedy that Vagbhata tried had any effect on the patient. Finally, suspecting that the patient was in reality a serpent deity (every fresh water spring in Kashmir had a specific serpent deity), Vagbhata asked him outright. When the patient identified himself as a Nag or demi-god associated with a spring, Vagbhata knew that the remedy had to include binding his eyes so that the fumes from his breath would not hamper the treatment. It worked, and the Nag presented Vagbhata with saffron corms in gratitude. Indeed, to this day, the fresh water spring of Takshak Nag at Zevan in Kashmir is visited by pilgrims and its water is considered sacred, not to mention that geographically, it is indeed very close to the area where saffron grows.

Indeed, to this day, the fresh water spring of Takshak Nag at Zevan in Kashmir is visited by pilgrims and its water is considered sacred, not to mention that geographically, it is indeed very close to the area where saffron grows.

Other, similar legends associated with the Buddhist and Muslim faiths also exist, both of which were established in the Kashmir valley at different periods. Significantly, these legends too include the handing over of saffron corms by a religious figure in gratitude.

Saffron is widely thought to have been first grown in Croycus (now Korghoz) near Syria, from where the Arabs are said to have taken it to Spain in 961 CE. Literary references too provide clues about the origins of saffron in the Kashmir valley. When Kashmiri historian Kalhana wrote his Rajataringini or Chronicle of Kings in the 11th century CE, one of the crops he mentioned is saffron. And after Kashmir became a part of the Mughal empire in 1586 CE, Emperor Jahangir remarked on how the blooming saffron fields in Pampore caused him to feel drowsy, as referenced in the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. Legends and literary references aside, growing saffron is quite prosaic; in fact, it requires tedious, back-breaking work. Saffron flowers grow from corms and bloom for just one month in the year, always in autumn. The flowers have exceedingly short stems so, to delighted onlookers, it looks like the world’s largest carpet – and quite possibly the prettiest too. However, to owners of saffron fields it means hours and hours of back-breaking work because machines just cannot take the place of human labour, much like tea estates. Each pale mauve blossom contains three yellow stamens and three maroon stigmas attached to a white style. Each corm yields anything from one to five blossoms that open at dawn. When a blossom is ready, it has to be plucked before sunrise, else the sun would weaken the colouring power of the trumpet-shaped stigmas. This means about six to eight hours of bending over double, every day, for at least two weeks in the year.

Saffron flowers grow from corms and bloom for just one month in the year, always in autumn. The flowers have exceedingly short stems so, to delighted onlookers, it looks like the world’s largest carpet – and quite possibly the prettiest too.

That’s not the end, though: There’s more labour ahead to make sure that the Crocus sativus transforms from a flower to a spice. The style has to be separated from the stigmas, and the quite worthless stamens have to be discarded. Next, the stigmas have to be dried in a process called ‘fixing’, and the more expeditiously this process takes place, the better the flavour and colour of saffron can be ‘fixed’. In Spain, the fixing process is done over gentle heat, but in Kashmir – as indeed the rest of the saffron-growing world – the saffron is dried in the shade.

It is at this stage that rapid degeneration can take place, and experts have noted that Kashmiri saffron growers should put into place a system, not necessarily high tech, whereby a day’s picking of saffron stigmas can be dried in one hour instead of the three days that it currently takes. But then, experts have been pursing their lips at many of the goings-on in Pampore. There is no irrigation system in place, no de-weeding, no pest control and no digging up of the corms every three years, as is the international norm. In short, nothing seems to be ploughed back into the system that is laying the golden eggs, as Harpreet Chhabra, puts it.

(Excerpted with permission from The Flavour of Spice: Journeys, Recipes, Stories by Marryam H. Reshii, published by Hachette India, MRP Rs 550)

Also read: On Gauri Lankesh, From Chidanand Rajghatta’s Illiberal India

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Feature Image Credit: Hachette India

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