Iran’s saf­fron seeks global recog­ni­tion

Viet Nam News - - FOOD - By Eric Ran­dolph

The labour­ers edge their way across a field of bright pur­ple flow­ers gath­er­ing up the world's most ex­pen­sive spice, a bounty that makes this dusty cor­ner of Iran a cru­cial part of global cui­sine.

The del­i­cate pur­ple leaves of the Cro­cus sativus plant hold just three or four of the even more del­i­cate red sta­men, bet­ter known as saf­fron, that sprouts for just 10 days a year.

These tiny fil­a­ments are cur­rently sell­ing in lo­cal mar­kets for 90 mil­lion ri­als per kilo - about US$700 on Iran's volatile ex­changes - and per­haps four times higher abroad.

The gov­ern­ment says more than 90 per cent of the world's saf­fron grows from the hard soil in Kho­rasan prov­ince of north­east­ern Iran - a fig­ure cor­rob­o­rated by France's spe­cial­ist in­sti­tute of agri­cul­ture and fish­ing FranceA­griMer - even­tu­ally find­ing its way into Span­ish pael­las, In­dian cur­ries, Swedish saf­fron buns and much more.

In­dia is a dis­tant sec­ond, fol­lowed by Greece, Morocco, Azer­bai­jan, Afghanistan and Spain, ac­cord­ing to a FranceA­griMer re­port in 2013.

The star pro­ducer in Iran is the small town of of Tor­bat-e Hey­dariyeh, about 700km east of Te­heran - which ac­counts for a third of global pro­duc­tion, ac­cord­ing to FranceA­griMer.

But poor mar­ket­ing means Iran has not al­ways won the credit it de­serves as the home of saf­fron, hav­ing mostly ex­ported it whole­sale to other coun­tries who la­bel it as their own.

"All the cul­ti­va­tion is done here, but the mar­ket­ing and sales is done else­where," lo­cal parliament mem­ber Saeid Bas­tani said.

"The peo­ple of the world should know that all saf­fron - of any brand in any mar­ket in the world - is Ira­nian whether it says Spain, Italy or Switzer­land," he added with just a sprin­kle of pa­tri­otic ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

The gov­ern­ment is work­ing with lo­cal busi­nesses and farm­ers to fix the prob­lem.

From his swish new fac­tory on the out­skirts of Mash­had, Ali Shariati, CEO of Novin Saf­fron, sends out around 15 tonnes of high-grade saf­fron to world mar­kets each year and is spear­head­ing "Made in Iran" ef­forts.

It's tricky be­cause the ma­jor mar­kets each have their own saf­fron needs that re­quire spe­cific pack­ag­ing and brand­ing - Spain wants pow­der for that means they're mov­ing into wet­ter re­gions and that's no good be­cause the qual­ity is bet­ter in dry ar­eas," said Amin Rezaee, a farmer in the heart of saf­fron coun­try - around two hours' drive south of Mash­had.

Like most farm­ers, he has been suck­ing wa­ter out of the ground to wa­ter his land, but now re­alises he must in­vest in more so­phis­ti­cated ir­ri­gation sys­tems if he wants it to sur­vive.

"It's a prob­lem that peo­ple are ir­ri­gat­ing in tra­di­tional ways. They must start to in­vest in mod­ern meth­ods," he said.

At his fac­tory, Shariati said the prob­lem is eas­ily solv­able with bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion and sup­port for vil­lagers, which could boost Iran's pro­duc­tion from 400 to 1,000 tonnes per year.

The big­gest is­sue for farm­ers, he recog­nised, was nav­i­gat­ing Iran's night­mar­ish bank­ing sec­tor, which is no­to­ri­ously re­luc­tant to lend to small busi­nesses.

So un­der a new "fair trade" scheme his firm now organises loans on farm­ers' be­half, bulk-buys equip­ment at cheaper prices, and pro­vides ed­u­ca­tion on farm­ing tech­niques.

"We're ed­u­cat­ing at least 20,000 farm­ers and we have guar­an­teed pur­chases con­tracts with 4,000," he said.

"We want them to de­liver more or­ganic saf­fron and im­prove their lives at the same time."

‘Salt, pep­per, saf­fron’

The other ob­sta­cle is Iran's strug­gling econ­omy, which has lately seen wild fluc­tu­a­tions in the cur­rency, in part due to US sanc­tions.

"The price of bulbs, fer­tiliser and labour­ers have all tre­bled this year, but the price of saf­fron has only dou­bled," said Mo­hamad Ja­fari, whose fam­ily has been sell­ing saf­fron in the small town of Tor­bat-e Hey­dariyeh for half a cen­tury.

That is good for ex­ports, but an­other blow for Ira­ni­ans hit by soar­ing prices.

Still, most peo­ple in the saf­fron trade re­main up­beat.

In­ter­na­tional sales have been boosted in the past five years by in­creas­ing in­ter­est from China, and food­stuffs are pro­tected from US sanc­tions -mak­ing it a pri­or­ity ex­port for the gov­ern­ment.

"The big­gest prob­lem with saf­fron is that peo­ple don't know about saf­fron," said Shariati.

"We want them to think 'salt, pep­per, saf­fron'." AFP

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