Amidst the towering snow-capped mountains of Pampore, Kashmir, lie fields covered in a blanket of purple crocus flowers. This is the flower that produces the precious spice known as saffron. Pampore, a small village located around 14 kilometres from the state capital, Srinagar, is known as the ‘saffron capital of India’, with more than 20,000 families associated with saffron cultivation.
The saffron produced in the region is of superior quality and can fetch as much as Rs 2, 50,000 per kilogram in the market. The laborious task of cultivating saffron is what makes the spice so valuable.
The process begins with the villagers picking the delicate flowers and collecting them in wicker baskets. Each flower is then sorted according to its three parts — the petals, the yellow strands and the red strands. Pure saffron is derived from the red strands. More than 1,50,000 flowers are sifted and scanned for a kilogram of the crimson spice. After this, the strands are dried over a charcoal fire.
Across India, this spice has many names — zafran in Urdu, kesar in Hindi, kong posh in Kashmiri and kungumapoo in Tamil. Alongside the multiple names it is known by, there are numerous accounts of how the spice came to India.
Kesar is also a culinary star used by Kashmiris for stews, broths and kebabs, as well as in milk to break the Ramadan fast. It was under the Mughal rule in India that saffron was first used to flavour flatbreads like sheermal, lamb curries and fruit sherbets.
Loved by many is the kashmiri saffron-infused green tea called kahwa, or kehwa, that makes you fall in love with it. This elixir is brewed slowly in a copper samovar with spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, served with a dash of honey and sometimes garnished with slivers of almond.
"The petals, stigmas and styles have yellow strands and red strands," explains Sunil Bhatt, a Kashmiri chef who operates a restaurant in Kolkata. "Only the red strands give saffron", he says.
More recently, saffron has attracted a renewed interest for its use in cosmetics. Since ancient times, saffron has been used for cosmetic purposes, absorbed in infusion or even in the cutaneous application, mixed with fat or macerated in donkey milk, for its eternal youthful properties. Cleopatra used it in her beauty products.
In traditional Iranian medicine, saffron is used to improve the complexion and can be used to treat erysipelas. In traditional Greek medicine, it is used to refresh the skin of the face and is used to relieve the liver of the domination of bile and to treat acne, skin diseases and wounds. In addition, the body may look younger and brighter.
Nowadays, saffron tepals have been studied in several studies as being rich in crocin and kaempferol, thus representing an important source of bioactive compounds for potential cosmetic formulations. Besides the antioxidant properties, saffron presents multiple interests for cosmetic applications.
Kesar not just a reminder of all the beauty, magnificence and glory of Kashmir, it is also a reminder of how central this region has been in our history.