On the Sumas Praire near Abbotsford, Avtar Dhillon is producing BC's first commercial saffron crop — a Canadian version of the world's most expensive spice.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Saffron is a hardy crop that can thrive in Canada but, as Avtar Dhillon can attest, farming is always challenging.
In early November 2021, Dhillon had a flourishing crop of purple saffron crocuses popping up in his field, some of the first fruits of his six-year labour to produce British Columbia’s first commercial saffron crop.
Two weeks later, and just halfway through his harvest, the region was hit with an “atmospheric river” of rainfall. Washington’s Nooksack River overflowed its banks, floodwaters breaching the dyke along the low-lying Sumas Prairie, and Dhillon’s Ramsar Farm, including his blueberry and saffron fields, were suddenly submerged under several feet of water.
It was a disaster for Dhillon and his twin brother Jagtar, who both live with their families on the farm, as they lost their homes, their crops and their livelihoods.
Barely two per cent of Avtar’s 250,000 saffron bulbs survived — just a sliver of his half-acre plot — but when I spoke with him in the fall, he had regrouped, and was out plucking flowers with his wife, determined to keep their saffron farming dream alive.
“We are harvesting every day, only about 100 flowers today,” explained Dhillon, who is now working as a truck driver while he awaits government support to help rehabilitate his farm. “I only saved the saffron beds by the house, but we have started replanting again”.
It’s a slow process but one he says is ongoing. The family spent much of last year in a rented apartment, awaiting repairs to their home, but the couple is back on the farm, gathering the blooms as they emerge and plucking the fragile stigmas, to salvage what they can.
And, barring another flood, Dhillon will harvest more of the ruddy spice this year, bringing a commercial crop of BC-grown saffron to the local market.
EVER RARE, EXPENSIVE AND EXOTIC
It’s not hyperbole to say that saffron is the most valuable and exotic spice on earth, or that it’s the most laborious to produce. The pungent red threads of saffron are the dried stigmas of the fall-blooming Crocus sativus. Each small flower must be handpicked, then the stigmas carefully removed by hand and dried.
There are just three stigmas in each flower — one to three flowers per plant — and it takes about 500 stigmas make up a single gram of saffron. An acre of saffron crocuses, about the size of a football field, may yield just 450 g of the rare spice. So it’s no wonder the retail price of top quality saffron can be $50 a gram or more.
But even for all its rarity — or perhaps because of it — saffron is a spice that been used in many different cultures over thousands of years, as a luxury food and flavouring, medicine and dye.
Saffron was cultivated in ancient Greece, as early as 3000 BC. In ancient Rome, it was prized as a perfume, and it’s said Egyptian queen Cleopatra added one-quarter cup of saffron to her bath “for its colouring and cosmetic properties”.
The spice was also grown in Persia in the 10th century BC, used as a yellow dye, perfume and medicine, and is still popular in Persian cuisine. Saffron spread to the Kashmir region of India, likely with early Persian rulers, and remains a Kashmiri crop today.
According to a new book, Fool's Gold: A History of British Saffron by Sam Bilton, saffron was popular in the Medieval kitchen and was grown across England until the 18th Century.
“There was a thriving saffron industry in this country,” she writes, adding: “Some people even claimed English saffron was the best to be found in the world.”
Today, the global saffron market is valued at more than $1 billion (US) and forecast to grow by more than 8.5% annually.
So, it’s not surprising to see saffron growers again trying their hand at this valuable luxury crop in pockets around the world.
Saffron is surprisingly easy to grow when the conditions are right. The Crocus sativus bulb (or corm) thrives in well-drained soil in temperate climates with dry summers, and will tolerate cold winter temperatures. The bulbs lie dormant during the summer and the spiky leaves and single purple flowers emerge in the fall. The harvest season is short, just two to four weeks, when the blooms are picked daily.
In areas of the world where the climate is hot, and getting hotter, Dhillon says the flowers must be picked while still closed, often before dawn, to protect the quality of the saffron threads which quickly wilt in the heat. That’s not a problem in the cooler fall weather in southern BC when the flowers are ready to pick.
“In cold weather, it’s a very good quality stigma,” says Dhillon, adding, with his family’s help, the harvest is relatively easy.
“It’s not really hard job — when we pick it up, we can go for half an hour or 45 minutes, then we sit at the table and remove the threads.”
Dhillon dries the saffron for a few days at room temperature, then it’s kept in a sealed container to preserve the intense aromas.
Crocus sativus is a cold-hardy bulb that can be planted at any time of the year, but only blooms in October and November. In some saffron-producing countries, changing weather patterns have damaged the saffron fields and reduced the yields, but Dhillon says the temperate climate of southern BC is proving ideal for saffron.
In fact, Dr. Javad Hadian, an associate professor of agriculture at the University of the Fraser Valley, is testing that premise with field trials to study the crop’s future here.
Hadian, who was hired by UFV in August, is from Iran and is a specialist in herbs, spices and medicinal plants, greenhouse horticulture and vertical farming. With direct experience growing saffron in Iran, the world’s largest saffron producer, he has a unique perspective to bring to Canada’s fledgling saffron business.
“Saffron is a low water demand crop, but saffron production areas in both Iran and Spain and even Kashmir in India are greatly affected by climate change and lack of rainfall and water resources,” says Hadian, adding that in his home province of Khorasan in Iran, saffron production has fallen by 75% in two decades due to changes in the climate.
“Although we will need to perform trials to see which parts perform better, my initial understanding is that saffron can be cultivated in different areas of BC,” he says, adding soil drainage issues and excessive rainfall may be the biggest challenges.
“I would like to combine my knowledge on growing saffron with the expertise I developed in Canada on vertical farming and develop a system for growing saffron indoors!”
GROW YOUR OWN
A DIY saffron project is also an option.
“As saffron production is highly labor intensive, it’s a good idea if families can grow their saffron in the backyard,” says Hadian.
You may only harvest enough saffron for a few plates of risotto from your home garden, so it’s not exactly cost effective, but it’s an interesting horticultural experiment. And you’ll be confident that you have authentic saffron in your spice cupboard.
When planted in summer, the crocuses will emerge and bloom within three months, says Dhillon. Then they are left in the ground over winter to bloom again a year later. Like tulips, the saffron bulbs multiply over time, producing additional flowers in subsequent years.
Dhillon imported the 250,000 saffron that he originally planted on his Abbotsford farm directly from India. Now, as he replants, some of the bulbs are set at shallow depths, where they will produce a new crop of flowers and saffron threads, while others are being set much deeper, to multiply and provide him with additional seed stock.
Saffron needs well-drained soil and dry summers.
“Saffron should not be irrigated during the dormancy period in summer,” says Hadian. “If there is too much rainfall during summer or you are watering your garden for other plants, is it advisable to dig up the corms after they go dormant in June and store them, then replant in September. Only corms with a weight of higher than 8 g will flower.”
Look for the Crocus sativus bulbs (corms) at your local garden centre in spring and summer or buy them online. Pur Safran in Quebec (pursafran.com) sells the bulbs for delivery and planting in August (20 for $40; 100 for $150) while Ontario’s True Saffron advertises its saffron bulbs at $1.50 each (or $1 apiece for orders of 5,000 or more) for pick-up or delivery in late summer.
You’ll need to harvest at least 150 flowers to get the 450-500 stigmas in every gram of the dried spice. If you’re hoping for a cash crop, say a pound (450 g) of saffron, you’ll need at 150,000 to 200,000 saffron stigmas (from 50,000-70,000 flowers), so your investment in both space and bulbs for seed is considerably higher.
But you can buy a few corms and propagate them yourself, says Hadian, as “every corm can produce three to eight new corms between November to July.”
THE REAL DEAL
The price for saffron can vary widely, depending on the source and, like other rare products (think truffle oil, vanilla, maple syrup), there’s plenty of inferior saffron and outright fraud in the industry.
According to the Pur Safran website, “world production is estimated at between 120 and 130 tonnes annually” but much more “saffron” is sold than actually produced every year, 300 to 400 tonnes by some estimates.
Spain is the world’s largest exporter of saffron, and pure Spanish saffron, a DOP product from La Mancha, is the gold standard. Iran is the world’s largest producer of saffron, and half of its crop is exported in bulk to Spain and other countries, where it is repackaged for sale. So all saffron from Spain is not Spanish saffron. And if the price is too good to be true, it’s probably not pure saffron.
In fact, what’s labeled as saffron may be adulterated with dyed cornsilk or stigmas of other flowers, especially difficult to detect when the product is sold as a powder. Real, but lower grades of saffron, may include the yellow parts of the flower attached to the base of the stigmas, so you’re paying for added weight, not flavour. Safflower, from the unrelated thistle family (a.k.a. American or Mexican saffron), is red but tasteless, and sold as saffron.
You won’t be able to use infrared spectrometry to test the saffron you buy at home, but there are a few ways to determine if your saffron is the real deal.
Real saffron is aromatic, described as the aromas of fresh hay and honey, with a distinct bittersweet, earthy flavour. Fake saffron may have no flavour, or a strange metallic taste.
Premium saffron is only the single stigmas, each slightly flared at the tip and a deep brick red colour.
When steeped in warm water or milk for 5-10 minutes, pure saffron turns the liquid bright yellow, while the threads remain red. Fake saffron may produce a yellow liquid, but the threads (often corn silk or other plant material dyed with food coloring) lose their colour when soaked.
Pur Safran sells their Canadian-grown saffron for $69 per gram, while the Grade 1 saffron from True Saffron costs $60 per gram. And though he has limited supply this year, and no online presence yet, Dhillon sells his saffron direct from the farm to local customers for $50 a gram.
Saffron is the distinctive spice that turns a Spanish paella or Italian risotto a golden hue, gives a French bouillabaisse amazing aroma, and adds to elegance to a simple Persian pilaf. For festive occasions, Indian rice pudding is flavoured with saffron, and it’s essential in Rasmalai, the Bengali dessert of sweetened fresh cheese (paneer) in condensed, saffron-infused buffalo milk.
In India, Dhillon says saffron is used in cooking but is also prized as a medicinal spice, steeped in milk or water.
“It’s an antioxidant,” he says. “A lot of people put in the milk, and drink at bedtime, or they will put one stem in water to soak the whole night and drink in the morning.”
In traditional Aurvedic medicine, saffron is used as a natural sedative, to reduce anxiety and promote sleep. It’s also seen as a natural expectorant, so good for respiratory congestion and to treat asthma. The pigments or carotenoids are said to reduce inflammation while the safranal, which gives saffron its distinct flavour and aroma, is an antioxidant that may improve memory and mood.
But the health benefits attributed to “the sunshine spice” are wide ranging, from reducing blood sugar and high blood pressure to aiding in weight loss by supressing the appetite.
Soak the saffron threads in liquid — whether water, broth, milk, vinegar or wine — for at least four hours before using in your recipes, and cook for less than 20 minutes to preserve the spice’s beneficial properties.
Dhillon says his family likes to steep their homegrown saffron in warm milk for a comforting drink or add to kheer (rice pudding).
“In our language, we call it Kesar,” he adds, sipping a mug of golden milk, sweetened with honey. “Mostly people in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, every day they are using for health reasons.”
Here’s to a healthy new year for his colourful crop, too.