What is Kashmir?

Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 9.47.15 AMThe answers to this question can be many! Serene greenery is Kashmir. A soothing shade of Chinar is Kashmir. Uplifting fragrance of Gulaab (rose) is Kashmir. Sweet to taste apple is Kashmir and of course, the refreshing aroma of saffron is Kashmir!

The season of the blooming of saffron flowers is just a month away when the fields turn purple across the lands from Iran to Iran-e-Sagheer

(Little Iran) as Kashmir was described by famed poets in yesteryears.

If you ask:“What do these flowers bring along ?” My reply would be that they bring hope and joy. Each flower brings cheer to people, smile to lips, sheen to faces and prosperity to state!

Part of culture

Some plants of herbal and medicinal value get embedded into our culture so much because of their influence on our culture and cuisine. We as a people come to be known by what we produce and the quality of that production. Saffron is one such entity as its production has become one of the elements of our value-added identity.

Certain places are known for their advancement of modern gadgetry and new technologies, the west is famed for the credible research it produces. Ours is primarily an agricultural economy. We are a land of cultivators and growers and what we produce matters. We should make sure that our product is of the highest quality in order to maintain our reputation in the national and international markets which is seeing a downward slope as far as the production of saffron in Kashmir is concerned. Economics and politics of it later, but first let’s talk about the science behind saffron.

Saffron crocus ( crocus sativas) is basically a perennial spicy herb which belongs to the family Iridaceae. The spice that it produces is basically the stigmas and styles called as threads which are carefully plucked during the harvesting season and dried which are then mainly used as colouring and flavouring agent in foods. Being very expensive saffron is rarely used as a medicinal agent but research is being carried out to find out more information about the chemical part of it.

Jewel Among the Spices

Rightly referred to as “Red Gold” saffron brings to the diversity and richness. Richness in terms of culture, the richness in terms of the use, and more importantly a rich history which almost dates back to the very beginning of civilization. The consensus among historians is that saffron came from the Greeks. As of today, Iran continues to be the single largest producer of the spice ( almost 90%), behind it comes Spain followed by India.

Chemically Rich

Saffron contains about 150 volatile compounds which give it its distinct colour and aroma. The main constituent responsible for the colour is degraded carotenoid compounds crocin and crocetin. And subsequently, safranal, another product of carotenoid degradation, is responsible for the flavour. The bitter comes from the glucoside picrocrocin.  Alongside these components, many non-volatile active components are also present such as α and β carotene, carotenoids such as zeaxanthin and lycopene. Crocin is such a strong colouring agent that just 1 part of it can colour about 150,000 parts of water. Kashmir’s saffron is known for its dark colour which is an indication of the high content of crocin.

In sync with its chemical properties, a pinch of saffron gives a particular tinge to Kashmiri kahwa. Behn Ji, a social activist in a downtown locality in Srinagar revealed that “only one thread of pure saffron could make the whole mug filled with water turn dark red”. But nowadays such is adulteration and mixing of fake with real saffron that “ even 10 threads do not bring the desired tinge ”, she lamented.

A Family Affair

Normally the whole family is associated with the production of saffron. The growing of saffron is a family affair, unlike any other product. It engages all the members of the family, men and women, young and old, everybody has his role assigned to be performed. Everything from cultivation to harvesting is done by hand and as of now, there is no mechanical way of harvesting which requires a lot of labour and time. Each flower is hand plucked and it requires almost 35,000 flowers to produce just 1 pound of the spice. Labour intensive processing makes it costlier.

Global  trends and local challenges

Umar Mushtaq, a science student at  Kashmir University proudly introduces himself as the son of the historic township of Pampore , a famous for saffron production, situated south side of the  Srinagar city.

Member of a  family of saffron growers who have been in this trade for the past 50 years, Umar says. “We are not worried about the demand. It’s the production of saffron that we worry about”. Failure of various government-sponsored schemes including the much publicised National Saffron Mission are the concerns of the locals. “Saffron needs a lot of precipitation and the changing weather pattern in the valley is making the situation more difficult. Lack of irrigation resources is hurting the production”, he explains. Besides the unchecked conversion of saffron fields into construction sites is affecting the product. The cement dust is factories is affecting the soil. No doubt less precipitation is one of the major causes of downfall in the production. The official apathy is adding to the woes of the growers. While the production of saffron in Iran is scaling new heights, its touching new lows in Kashmir! The concerned quarters need to look into the matter with a sense of urgency and should evolve and follow a problem-solving approach.

Save Brand Kashmir

 The need of the hour is to uphold the business ethics. And do away with the practices of adulteration which are not only hurting the trade and the brand Kashmir which is considered otherwise of the highest grade and quality in the world. This is also affecting the name and fame of  Kashmiris and hurting the essence of our culture. Scientific practices for quality analysis such as spectrophotometry can be adopted in order to check the samples. The requisite lab facilities for testing the produce be put in place. Appropriate irrigation facilities are to be provided and dust suppression systems need to be introduced in the area.

Nothing is more important than being assured about the quality as the consumers have to spend hefty sums for small quantities of this exotic and the most expensive spice.

Hope someone is listening!

(A regular contributor, Mirza Ravhan writes on issues related to science and society.                  Email: mirzaravhan@gmail)