Why is saffron so expensive? Real saffron can cost you over $10,000 per kilogram
Saffron stands out even among the most expensive spices in the world. Because 1 kg of saffron can cost you around $10,000. Saffron is popular as a spice, a dye, and a medicine. And, you need over 150 saffron flowers to gather just 1 gram of saffron. And it is most likely that the saffron you have now is fake.
What makes this spice so expensive?
Crocus sativus has three small stigmas. And that red stigma is called saffron. They should be picked carefully by hand. That means you get roughly 0.006 grams of saffron from each flower. And, it can take up to 40 hours of hard manual labor to produce 1 kg of high-quality saffron.
Growing the plant is not easy either, basically, they are like bulbs. And, they are called corms. And you get more bulbs when you get more flowers, and bigger the flowers. That all depends on how you look after the flowers, how you grow it, and the climate.
If you get rain before the harvest you get bigger flowers. If it’s very dry before the harvest, you get smaller flowers. So, you look after the flowers by hand during the year, you pick the flowers by hand, and you process the flowers by hand.
Harvesters have to work fast to pick the flowers in time, once the crop starts flowering. And almost all of the saffron plants can flower within one week of the year. It is best if the flowers are picked first thing in the morning to maintain the quality. Quality is the key thing of growing such precise crops. The taste of the real saffron depends on the rainfall, temperature, and soil.
Kashmir is famous for producing one of the highest quality saffron in the world. To get the highest grade of saffron you might need to throw half of the harvest away. The highest grade, most expensive saffron is generally made by collecting the very tips of the stigma.
There are four grades, in Iran, where over 90% of the world’s saffron is produced. The lowest grade is when the entire strand is pulled out from the flower, from the dark red tip to the yellow base. So, the yellow strand is removed in higher grades. It leaves only one strand of pure red. So, that means it takes up to $450,000 to gather 1kg of saffron. So, to get that many saffron strands, you need $150,000 flowers. These flowers can take up a lot of growing space too.
For example, cumin can yield 600 kilos per acre. Nutmeg can yield around 350 kilos per acre. So per acre, you only get a 1.8-kilo harvest.
Over 200 metric tons of saffron threads are harvested worldwide each year. That’s the result of about 30 billion flowers. And the demand for this spice is increasing despite the incredible amount of work and space this spice takes to grow and harvest. Because of the high demand, many people try to produce fake saffron.
Even though the threads look real at the first glance. They could actually be made of corn silks, coconut fibers, or horsehair. And lower grade stigmas can be dyed using synthetic colorings and sell them as high-grade saffron.
A fake-saffron crime ring organized in the UK in late 2019 and conducted a two-year international investigation. In 2010, Spain exported 190,000 kilos of saffron, worth $50 million. But the total production of Spain is only 1,500 kilos.
At that time, a local farmers union reported that up to 90% of Spanish saffron exports are fake and fraudulent. The problem still persists, even though the industry has attempted to crack down on these fake and mislabeled products. And the market for fake saffron led to closing many real saffron farmers down.
What does real saffron actually taste like?
Real saffron has an earthy, bittersweet flavor. Even though many people try to replicate the flavor too. But it is very difficult to do. They failed to replicate the flavor of real saffron.
Saffron has been sought after throughout history. There are mentions that Zeus sometimes slept on a bed of saffron in Greek Mythology. Using the dying properties of the spice as an ancient fake tan, Cleopatra was said to bathe in saffron and milk. In the 14th century, when it was thought to be a possible cure for the plague, saffron’s popularity skyrocketed across Europe.
But climate change brings a recent looming problem for saffron and its price. Production has dropped significantly, and many farmers are selling their land instead of in Kashmir.
In the last four or five years, they have had very few rains. In Kashmir, the climate and the temperature have changed completely. Now the harvest is very low compared to the harvest in the past. Saffron is a cultural identity in Kashmir. But now the production is declining. The lands are being sold and houses are built on those saffron lands.
Saffron production fell almost 70% in the region between 2017 and 2018. Production fell down from 16.5 metric tons to 5.2. This harvest can become even low with climate change and continuing droughts.