The precious yield of Kozani’s regal crocus

 Saffron has been a jewel in the country’s crown for some 500 years

By Evi Voutsina
In the fields of many villages on the Tsarsambas Plain, which stretches south of the northern Greek region of Kozani to Lake Polyfytos, the mild climate and rich soil make them the perfect hosts for top-quality saffron extracted from Kozani crocus.
The region has been cultivating crocus flowers for some 500 years and now these efforts have been rewarded with a slot on the European Union’s list of products of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). The cultivation of this precious plant was initiated by Kozani merchants whose travels across Europe and the Mediterranean had made them aware of the commercial potential of the spice that is extracted from the plant. Saffron is also grown in Spain, Morocco and several countries in Central Asia, though the Kozani variety is widely considered to be of the best quality.
Crocus sativus is a domesticated perennial that bears three long stigmas of a bright orange/red hue and with a strong aroma which can be used as a seasoning and coloring agent in food preparation.
Growing the Kozani crocus is not an especially difficult job. Extracting the saffron, however, is – and it takes 20-30 days of backbreaking work that normally begins in mid-October.
The plant wilts at the end of spring and does not produce any new shoots until the first rains of autumn. Farmers observe the plants’ growth to see whether they can expect a good crop or not, waiting until the flowers cover their fields in a fragrant purple carpet. Once the plants have reached maturity, it is time for the farmers to get moving before the stigmas begin to wilt. The harvest begins early in the morning, with the laborers bent over double to gently pull the flower from the plant without harming the stalk or the stigma with an expert twist of the wrist. This continues until the entire field is cleared and can take several hours. The plants are then taken to the separating table and the field left to blossom again day after day for the 20-30 days of the flower’s cycle.
The flowers are then tossed onto a round, spinning surface that separates the petals from the stigmas and then the stigmas are sorted by hand. They are next placed on large wooden planks and left to partially dry out in a well-ventilated room at 35-40 degrees Celsius (95-104F). Once dried, the stigmas are gone through again by hand so that only the best of the harvest makes it to market. To produce 1 kilogram of Kozani saffron, producers have to pick and sort as many as 150,000 to 170,000 flowers within the space of a month. The Kozani crocus is also protected by a cooperative established in the area that includes all saffron producers. The product is sold in small packages or glass jars, though it really does take only a pinch of the spice to give dishes that deep orange tint and hay-like fragrance. To get the maximum color and flavor, soak the saffron in a small bowl of water for an hour or two before use.

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