There is a tiny box in my kitchen which holds goods that my mother guards with her life. Even if I reach for the airtight container—which holds the delicate red threads of saffron that give out the sweetest fragrance—the scornful looks from her are enough to provide an unspoken warning: Handle With Care.
And rightly so.
Well-known as ‘red gold’, saffron is one of the most valuable herbs around the globe. Legend has it that even Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, is said to have bathed in saffron-infused mare milk before seeing a suitor. Used in a variety of dishes from sweets to savoury, it has a very distinctive aroma and taste. Its added health benefits make it fit for use in manufacturing cosmetics and medicines.
Today, this spice still holds the same importance and is widely grown in countries such as Iran, India, Greece and Afghanistan.
Closer home, Jammu and Kashmir is the only state producing saffron, wherein Pulwama district’s Pampore region is well-known as the ‘saffron bowl’. The flower is said to have been brought to India by Persian rulers around 500 BC.
According to an article by Scroll, there are 30,000 families associated with saffron cultivation. Earlier this year, Kashmiri saffron was also given a Geographical Indication tag (GI), marking its ingenuity.
Among the many saffron cultivators is Herb Heaven who has been growing organic saffron for 50 years and taking it across the world.
A family business
“Every family in the Pampore region is involved in saffron cultivation. My great grandfather, A.R Mir, started cultivating the crop over 50 years ago. Along with other family members and some labourers, he grew the crop on 25 acres of land and waited 14 months to harvest the red gold,” says fourth-generation owner, Monis Mir.
After completing a Master’s degree from the UK, Monis went on to work in several multinational corporations across the world. Though, it was only in 2018 when he decided to settle in Kashmir and scale up his family business.
“Currently, we are exporting to eight countries across the world but my aim is to meet all quality standards in terms of packaging and delivery, eventually taking my great grandfather’s hard work to the global markets,” says Monis.
Mehak Mir, Monis’ sister also joined the family business in 2019 after completing her Master’s in the UK. She says that she still remembers watching her grandfather, Abdul Rashid Mir go to work in the field every day. Earlier the family was cultivating the spice and selling it locally, but it was Abdul Rashid who broadened its reach to the Indian market.
“It was my grandfather who took the spice to markets across the country. He would live outside Kashmir for the entire year, just travelling to various cities like Kolkata and Hyderabad to sell our saffron. Till date, he is well known among the people in this region,” she says.
Thanks to his efforts, today, the Mir family provides saffron directly to retailers and several wholesalers in India, ayurvedic medicine producers, cosmetic brands like Himalaya, and food brands like Haldirams and more.
Across farms in Pampore there is no concept of using fertilizers or chemicals to cultivate saffron. Monis says, “Even after the stigmas are harvested, they are dried naturally under the sun and then packaged. The stock that is stored remains untouched until it is sold.”
Speaking about what goes into the cultivation of this spice, Monis says, “This delicate technique includes holding each flower in your palm, cutting the stem using your fingernails and repeating this process 1,000 times over.”
These stigmas are very delicate and are harvested only during the last week of October or first week of November. The stigma extraction is done manually by trained professionals.
Monis adds, “The next process involves gently separating the stigma from the flower petals and is followed by drying.”
The dried stigma strands of the saffron bulbs (flower) take 14 months for it to grow and each flower produces only three or four of these small threads. It takes 50,000 to 75000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron threads.
Herb Heaven produces four types of saffron — Mongra, Lacha, Zarda, and Choora, and sell up to 500 kilos every year.
“Mongra is a bright red colour variety that is of top quality. It is the stigma that is found on the surface of the flower while the ones below have a slight yellowish tinge. These are known as a Lacha. In the same flower, there are stigmas which are yellowish, they are known as Zarda,” says Monis, adding that Choora, is the smaller stigmas found at the bottom of the flower and appear powdered in texture. It is a mix of both the yellow and red stigmas.
For the future, Monis and Mehak plan on expanding the business by taking their product to other countries, making saffron-infused organic honey, and processing their blend of Kahwa tea, which is a popular drink in that region.
For orders, you can reach out to them via their website.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)
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