This week, I had the privilege of speaking with the North America’s merchant of spice or rather, The Saffron King–Behroush Sharifi. Held in high esteem by the food fraternity, The Saffron King supplies the most notable chefs with the finest of spices from the most every day, to the rarest finds. Spices have for centuries scented our food and beverages and provided medicinal benefits–after all, many people could attest firsthand at the effectiveness of cloves on a toothache. It is a combination of these intrinsic values that has led spices to being at the source of much controversy. One spice in particular has seduced royalty, government and society for centuries: Saffron. These delicate crimson red strands offered to us by the crocus flower have stood the test of time and like a handful of precious commodities, it has held continued prestige.
But the prestige is not without reason. To get the story on Saffron, who better to go to than The Saffron King himself? Meeting the Saffron King provided for a very historic moment. With his long curly locks, full beard (both recently cut and recently shaved off for charity) and Moorish eyes, I was instantly transported to a context of ancient spice traders, imparting knowledge and guarding their valuables from aggressors.
When most people think of saffron, they associate it with Spain. However, Behroush has been importing his saffron from Iran. He is very particular about all his spices and for him; Iran produces the best quality saffron owing to its warm climate, clay land and sun-kissed fields.
Saffron is a high maintenance spice, to say the least. Cultivation requires attentiveness and the crocus itself yields three to four flowers that provide a mere three saffron strands ‘stigmas’ each. When ready for harvesting, the stigmas are delicately picked and dried so it's no wonder that saffron strands are priced at $3,000 a kilo today. Hearing this certainly made my eyes bulge, but The Saffron King reminded me that very little in a dish goes a very long way.
Saffron has a presence in many cultural cuisines be it sweet or savory in application. Yet food is a mere outcome of a larger human story–these spices represent a pathway of cultural dialogue. When countries and colonies were conquered, they were subject to inevitable loss but there was also inheritance by way of trade, culture and ingredients creating new strains of traditions and dishes.
As The Saffron King continues his spice crusade across America, it is clear that new traditions are being built in kitchens world over constantly. People want ‘fresh and local’ and what he offers is ‘dried and global’, yet his value proposition is unquestionable. Whilst he certainly serves Spanish, Middle Eastern, Italian and French restaurants–with dishes known to use saffron, his client list also includes other less obvious cultures, such as Japanese and Belgian. From his experience, his clients are approaching saffron with a less orthodox approach and not simply reserving the usage to a dish of luxury but rather to also brighten up more everyday dishes, such as mashed-potatoes and soups.
While the demand for saffron is growing, his inventory certainly isn’t. Ask him why and his eyes fill up with sadness. His journey has been a struggle and he has weathered many storms in order to provide people and chefs with a product he believes so strongly in. September 11th was certainly a set back and now, the embargo on Iranian imports means he can no longer bring saffron and other spices into the country.
The Saffron King continues to be a purveyor of other luxury items, such as, caviar and truffles but his clients wait with baited breath for the lifting of the embargo to get their Iranian Saffron.