Greece’s ‘red gold’: Saf­fron trade bloom­ing in a wilted econ­omy

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY KAROLINA TAGARIS

Ev­ery au­tumn, Zi­sis Ky­rou is more of­ten found pluck­ing flow­ers in north­ern Greece’s pur­ple saf­fron fields than in his of­fice as a civil en­gi­neer. Saf­fron – the spice so ex­pen­sive it’s called “red gold” – has brought jobs and money to a re­gion bet­ter known for coal mines and un­em­ploy­ment. A year ago, its pro­duc­ers be­gan ex­port­ing to the United States. Now they’re look­ing to China.

Most are young Greeks who were shut out of the job mar­ket dur­ing Greece’s nine-year eco­nomic down­turn. They re­turned to the coun­try­side to make a liv­ing off the land.

“It was hard to find work in your field dur­ing the cri­sis, par­tic­u­larly in civil en­gi­neer­ing, be­cause there was no con­struc­tion,” said Ky­rou, 34, as he har­vested with pollen-stained hands.

In 2012, he re­turned to Greece from Lon­don with two univer­sity de­grees. He even­tu­ally opened an en­gi­neer­ing of­fice in his vil­lage of Krokos, but most of his in­come comes from his four acres of land, which he hopes to in­crease. “I didn’t imag­ine I’d re­turn,” he said. “But it was a de­ci­sion I don’t re­gret.”

Greeks have been cul­ti­vat­ing saf­fron for three cen­turies in the coun­try­side sur­round­ing Krokos, which takes its name from Cro­cus, the saf­fron flower. Alexan­der the Great is said to have used it to heal bat­tle wounds. But un­til 2000, pro­duc­tion was limited to 30 kilo­grams a year for do­mes­tic con­sump­tion, said Nikos Pat­siouras, who heads Greece’s Co­op­er­a­tive of Saf­fron.

That changed in 2008, when the cri­sis hit. Greece now pro­duces about four tons a year, 70 per­cent of which goes abroad. The co­op­er­a­tive has dou­bled its mem­bers from 494 to 1,000. It also has in­creased its land from 592 acres in 2008 to 1,349 acres. “A lot of young peo­ple found work in the fields – sci­en­tists,” Pat­siouras said. “I be­lieve more will join.”

Signs of the cri­sis are vis­i­ble across Krokos, where shut­tered shops line the streets. Un­em­ploy­ment in north­west­ern Greece is 23.5 per­cent, three points higher than the na­tional av­er­age. But the fields are abuzz. “We have God on our side, who gave us such a unique prod­uct,” Pat­siouras said.

Saf­fron grows only in this re­gion of Greece. Mar­keted as Krokos Koza­nis, one gram costs about 4 eu­ros in Greek shops. It takes 150,000 flow­ers to make a kilo of the spice, which sells for about 1,500 eu­ros. Iran is by far the world’s big­gest saf­fron pro­ducer, but de­mand for the Greek va­ri­ety is ris­ing. Greece is in talks with China for ex­ports in 2019.

In the Pat­siouras house­hold, three gen­er­a­tions have gath­ered af­ter a day of har­vest­ing to re­move the saf­fron strands from the flow­ers and dry them. “If we don’t trans­fer this tra­di­tion to the next gen­er­a­tion, we will fail,” said his daugh­ter-in-law, Maria Pat­sioura.

The young Pat­siouras chil­dren fill a bas­ket with saf­fron flow­ers at the fam­ily’s field in the town of Krokos in Kozani, north­ern Greece.

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