THE SPICE OF LIFE

Saf­fron, the world’s most ex­pen­sive spice, is be­ing pro­duced by a cou­ple of en­ter­pris­ing, semi- re­tired Peechelba farm­ers.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - Words Jodie Flem­ing pho­tos Shirley Brightwell

BRIAN Jones and Shirley Brightwell are about to em­bark upon their third pick­ing of what is de­scribed as the world’s most ex­pen­sive spice by weight – saf­fron.

The semi-re­tired Peechelba Pro­duce own­ers have been farm­ing saf­fron since a visit from a Tas­ma­nian Saf­fron (known as Tas-saff) rep­re­sen­ta­tive seek­ing North East grow­ers three years ago.

The Tas-saff rep­re­sen­ta­tive was tar­get­ing the ex-to­bacco grow­ers in Myrtle­ford who had small acreage and who al­ready owned the ma­chin­ery re­quired to make the beds needed for grow­ing the saf­fron crocus (Crocus sativus).

Brian, who’d farmed crops most of his life, vis­ited Tasmania to learn more about this tem­per­a­men­tal flower, and re­turned con­fi­dent he’d found an ex­cit­ing new project to try on some of his 800 acres which wasn’t be­ing used by his 350 cross­bred ewes, or leased out.

“We orig­i­nally planted 20,000 bulbs, or corms as they are called, on land the size of about two and a half ten­nis courts,” said the fourth gen­er­a­tion farmer.

“They ac­tu­ally mul­ti­ply like a spring bulb, so you plant them about four inches apart. And af­ter four years, hope­fully they have all mul­ti­plied and they are all squashed in to­gether fight­ing for room, so then you dig them all up and re­plant them.”

One of the ma­jor chal­lenges is grow­ing the ac­tual flower it­self, as it only flow­ers for about a six week pe­riod and the weather con­di­tions need to be ideal.

“If you don’t get cold weather in early April then you don’t get flow­ers,” Shirley ex­plained.

“It just doesn’t wait for the cold weather and flow­ers, so it has got to have weather at the right time. If you’ve got a good frost, you’ll get a good flow­er­ing. If you get a medi­ocre frost, like we did last year, then you don’t get many flow­ers.”

Jan­uary 2014 was the first year the cou­ple planted some 20,000 corms and man­aged to pick 6300 flow­ers at har­vest time, which is in April/may of each year.

Last sea­son they were hop­ing to have 15,000 to 20,000 flow­ers to pick, how­ever the lack of frost only al­lowed for 7000 flow­ers to spring up, which they hand-picked.

As a self-seed­ing plant, saf­fron can mul­ti­ply it­self out eight to 10 times in four years, and with big­ger corms it is pos­si­ble to get 20 new plants.

Saf­fron, the world’s most ex­pen­sive spice, is a labour of love

for Peechelba pro­duc­ers

How­ever, af­ter four years, the corms need to be planted into new ground and into new beds.

“We are go­ing to dig up the first lot we planted in De­cem­ber this year, be­cause if you leave it all un­til the fourth year, then you don’t get a lot of flow­ers the fol­low­ing year,” Shirley said.

Dur­ing har­vest they pick twice a day. Prime time is just when the flow­ers are start­ing to open up, be­fore the petals are open fully to the sun, which de­te­ri­o­rates the qual­ity of the saf­fron. The sta­men of the flower is the ac­tual saf­fron. “We try and do the first pick at 8am and then we may go back at about 10.30am be­cause some of them might not be out of the plant enough and you can’t get them, so you go back a bit later and they will prob­a­bly come up about a quar­ter of an inch and you can pick them.

“Another bit of a se­cret is if you just ir­ri­gate them a bit at night for about 10 or 15 min­utes, then they will all have a bit of a stem on them and you can pick them eas­ier.

“The first year our big­gest pick­ing was 1000 in a morn­ing, but a good picker can pick about 1000 flow­ers per hour.”

Af­ter the saf­fron is har­vested it is placed in a dehydrator to dry it out for about 90 min­utes – 45 min­utes on a high tem­per­a­ture and then the rest on a lower tem­per­a­ture, and then it is ready for you to sim­ply put in a jar.

The saf­fron will last for many years, how­ever, over time the po­tency of the spice and colour di­min­ishes.

Saf­fron con­tains sev­eral plant-de­rived chem­i­cal com­pounds that are known to have anti-ox­i­dant, dis­ease pre­vent­ing, and health pro­mot­ing prop­er­ties.

An­tiox­i­dants that help pro­tect the hu­man body from ox­i­dantin­duced stress, can­cers, in­fec­tions and acts as im­mune mod­u­la­tors has been linked to the spice.

This novel spice of­fers a good source of min­er­als like cop­per, potassium, cal­cium, man­ganese, iron, se­le­nium, zinc and mag­ne­sium. Ad­di­tion­ally, it is also rich in many vi­tal vi­ta­mins, in­clud­ing vi­ta­min A, folic acid, ri­boflavin, niacin, vi­ta­min-c that is es­sen­tial for op­ti­mum health.

Brian and Shirley sell their saf­fron di­rect to con­sumers, at Wan­garatta Farm­ers Mar­ket, Wodonga Farm­ers Mar­ket at Hovell Tree Park in Al­bury, Be­nalla Lake­side Craft and Farm­ers’ Mar­ket, and the Yar­ra­wonga Ro­tary Mar­ket.

The cou­ple man­age to pro­duce enough saf­fron to sell at the farm­ers’ mar­kets they fre­quent - the stun­ning golden yel­low colour and hay-like fra­grance spice fetch­ing $10 per 100 mil­ligrams.

“We have enough to get us through the farm­ers mar­kets that we do, but not re­ally enough to sell on­line or to restau­rants in Mel­bourne or any­thing like that,” Shirley said.

“But we get so much in­ter­est at the mar­kets and I re­ally think it is a great thing for farm­ers’ mar­kets, in par­tic­u­lar, be­cause peo­ple go to not only buy pro­duce, but they just want to learn things and see some­thing new.

“We have a lot of peo­ple who have no un­der­stand­ing at all of saf­fron and prob­a­bly never use it, and they come and have a look at the pho­tos we have of the flower and a lot are quite in­ter­ested to learn about it.

“I don’t care if they buy it or not, we re­ally en­joy get­ting to talk to peo­ple about it.

“The saf­fron is a re­ally good thing to put in ham­pers be­cause it is small and easy to carry, and if you are trav­el­ling around and come across it and you think it would be a nice thing to give some­one or to put into a ham­per it is very easy to travel around with.”

While they are not cer­ti­fied or­ganic they do not use sprays on the saf­fron and up un­til re­cently have weeded all the beds by hand.

“We now have an or­ganic cer­ti­fied spray that will knock out the weeds, but it is very ex­pen­sive, how­ever, when the flow­ers come out I will weed by hand,” Shirley said.

Peechelba Pro­duce also grow and sell gar­lic and make their own mulch and ma­nure that has now be­come quite pop­u­lar among avid gar­den­ers.

“We get feed­lot ma­nure, which ev­ery­body knows is aged and or­gan­i­cally cer­ti­fied, and we put that through a ham­mer mill with re­ally old straw that has been out in the weather for years, which is nice and fine and en­riched, with no weeds,” Shirley said.

“We sell a lot of that. I also take some veg­gies to sell too. I al­ways have an ex­cess of ve­g­ies be­cause I just like to have a big gar­den and you al­ways have ex­tra stuff.”

‘We have enough to get us through the farm­ers mar­kets that we do, but not re­ally enough to sell on­line or to restau­rants in Mel­bourne or any­thing like that.’

HAR­VEST­ING \ Brian Jones har­vest­ing the saf­fron flow­ers from his raised beds.

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