An Abbotsford farmer has become the first in BC – and one in a handful in Canada – to grow the flower that produces the world’s most expensive spice.
Avtar Dhillon has discovered that Fraser Valley’s rainy climate and rich soil are ideal for growing saffron, a crop usually associated with arid areas.
The ancient spice – used in cooking, as a dye and in medicines – comes from the autumn-flowering perennial plant known as Crocus sativus (“saffron crocus”).
About 90 percent of the world’s total volume comes from Iran, and it is also produced in places like Spain, Greece, Italy, India and Afghanistan.
Dhillon says the spice is worth about $ 35,000 per serving. kilograms, mainly due to the intensive manual work required to harvest and heal the flowers.
He and his twin brother Jagtar have been running the 25-acre Ramsar Berry Farm in east Abbotsford near the Chilliwack border since 2006.
But the cost paid by processors for their blueberries has dropped over the years, and the couple began looking at other crops that could be grown in the low season.
Saffron was among the possibilities that Dhillon explored, and he discovered that a farm in Montreal had some success with the plants.
Dhillon bought some onions from India – they cost $ 1.50 apiece – and began experimenting with different cultivation methods about five years ago.
This included in a greenhouse, with fungicide, and at different times of the year.
Dhillon found that the best-producing crop was grown in the same field as his blueberries, starting in August and well into the rainy season. This year is the farm’s first crop, and Dhillon says the quality is among the best in the world.
The bulbs were planted during their dormant period, when the weather was dry but have since thrived in the humid climate.
Dhillon was surprised to find that each bulb produced not only one flower, but five or six.
He said he was not the only one who was surprised to have such success with the flowers in BC’s sad autumn climate.
“Nobody believes that … Some people say, ‘You’re kidding.’ I say, ‘I want to show you pictures.’ ”
The harvest of the purple flowers began in late October and will continue until the end of November.
From each hand-picked flower, the three inner crimson stigmas are removed – called threads.
Dhillon’s family is involved in the process. He and his brother are both married with five teenage children between them. They all live together and gather to harvest the flowers and separate the threads.
“Our kids, they come here and they have fun. Our whole family sits at the dining table and we talk and make saffron,” he said.
The threads are then dried in the open air for a few days and stored in an airtight container where Dhillon says the saffron can last for years.
The product can be sold in wire form or as a powder. He is currently selling it for $ 50 per. grams, which requires stigmas from about 400 flowers.
He hopes to eventually have five acres of the farm set aside for saffron cultivation.
Dhillon wants consumers to be wary of counterfeit saffron being sold on the market. Scammers can change the look of other items, such as corn silk or horsehair, and sell it as saffron.
True saffron, when a small piece is immersed in warm water or milk, it will take about 10 to 15 minutes to change the color of the liquid. Fake saffron will color it right away.
Dhillon advises you to buy directly from a trusted and / or local manufacturer.
FACTS ABOUT SAFFRAN
• 225,000 stigmas are required to produce one pound (0.45 kg) of saffron.
• All harvesting must be done by hand.
• The saffron flower is a perennial plant, which means that it blooms every year (in autumn).
Saffron is an excellent source of minerals such as copper, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, zinc and magnesium.
• It is used to color and taste many Mediterranean and Asian dishes, especially rice and fish, giving a yellow-orange color to foods.
• The ancient Greeks and Romans used saffron as a perfume.