The saffron fields on the outskirts of Srinagar. The crocuses whose stigmas constitute saffron (kesar in Hindi) flower in October and November. At the moment, there are just unexceptional little plants which from a distance look like tufts of grass - overshadowed by the almond trees in blossom. But saffron is one of the world's most valuable crops - about $2,500 a kilo (in case you are wondering, a kilo of gold costs $42,000). Kashmiri saffron is, so the growers say, the world's best - much superior to the saffron from Iran and Spain. Indeed, it's said that some unscrupulous Kashmiri traders bulk up their saffron with cheaper, coarser Iranian stigma.
The culinary value of saffron comes not so much from the taste - which is not at all pronounced - as the golden hue it imparts to cooking, and the wonderful fragrance. While in the saffron belt, we had some kahwa, traditional Kashmiri tea, containing saffron - and the colour really does stand out.
What stands out even more is the wealth of the saffron-growing community - the houses are immense, not just one or two houses, but all of them. I've never seen a village anywhere which, in terms of the size of the houses, appeared to be quite this prosperous. OK, so these are each home to an extended familiy and people here would much rather invest in property than save in a bank. Even so, these are big, big properties.
It wasn't immediately clear to me why saffron was grown in just a small area on the southern fringes of Srinagar. I was told that the land was good, slightly sloping to aid drainage, and that tradition - reinforced by religious myth - dictated that this was the realm of saffron. There are plenty of Kashmiri villages that are much, much poorer - especially those on the edges of the valley, where the mountains start to climb. But it was astonishing to see such opulence. Another sign of this increasing wealth - where once the crocus stamen would have been picked and sorted by Kashmiris, now Bihari workers from hundreds of miles away travel to Kashmir to take on this delicate and repetitive task.
Saffron has certainly brought a golden touch to Kashmir.
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