For any of you that watch Television news or read newspapers, you will be well aware of the trials and tribulations the country of Afghanistan has endured in the past 50+ years; from the overthrow of the monarchy to communist revolutions, and various factions (often with the support of other countries) wishing to take the country in very different directions. From the invasion by the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, to the Taliban trying to turn the country into a severe Islamic republic, this proud tribal country has endured much. It is estimated that during the Soviet-Afghan war between 562,000 and 2,000,000 civilians were killed and millions more fled the country as refugees. Throughout all this, the people of this war-torn country have a resilience to rebuild and renew. One such man, Ghaffar Hamidzay, had a dream to encourage farmers away from growing opium poppies by bringing back the tradition of growing crocuses that produce saffron.
The name saffron derives from the Arabic za’faran which comes from the Persian word zarparan meaning “gold strung”, implying either the golden stamens of the flower or the golden colour it creates when used as flavour . It comes from the red stigma of the autumn flowering purple Crocus Sativus; each flower has to be hand picked and then the three delicate stigmas removed and carefully dried. It takes approximately 200 flowers to produce 1 gram of dried saffron, making it the most expensive spice in the world, more expensive even than gold!
Growing saffron in Afghanistan goes back several thousand years when part of Afghanistan and Iran were called Khorasan. In more modern times saffron continued to be grown in Afghanistan but only by a small number of farmers. Then in 1991 a number of refugees fleeing Iran who had previously worked in saffron fields in Iran brought with them saffron corns, and began farming saffron in Afghanistan in Pashtoon Zarghoon and Ghoryan district of Herat province.
Afghan Saffron Company
For years many farmers have been forced to grow opium poppies, which funds the Taliban’s on-going struggle with the legitimate democratic Afghan government. So starting in 2006, in the province of Herat, Ghaffar began to grow saffron, introducing saffron as an alternative crop to illegal opium production. Ghaffar’s aim is to raise awareness of not only his company but to raise awareness of Afghanistan saffron globally.
Superior Taste Awards
From these humble beginnings the Afghan Saffron Company has grown to become one of the largest saffron producers of saffron in Afghanistan. Not only that, their saffron is recognised for its high quality around the world, achieving a 3 star rating (the highest rating) at the prestigious Superior Taste Awards in Brussels for 8 consecutive years (2013-2020). The competition is judged by chefs and sommeliers, following a rating system of one, two or three stars One star being an excellent achievement attaining scores above 70% . To attain two stars a product has to attain 80% or above whilst three stars need 90% or above. All the food & drink at this annual contest are blind tasted to ensure the marking is impartial. An exceptional product that achieves three stars for three consecutive years can then be awarded a “Crystal” award. The “Diamond” award is achieved by attaining 3 stars x 7 times over a ten year period And finally the “Absolute” award has to achieve 3 stars 20 times over a period of 25 years .
In 2010 the Afghan Saffron Company made a major investment in obtaining the best saffron strains and in mechanising the whole production process, focusing on quality and innovation. The main objective of these improvements was to maximise the characteristic quality of the saffron, from planting and gathering bulbs, to the harvesting, peeling, weeding, soil loosening and drying processes. That same year, for the first time in Herat, Mr Hamidzay made the decision that his saffron crop would be organic and began the process to get the necessary certification for ecological production. Today Afghan Saffron is the only organic saffron plantation in the region.
By 2013 international recognition began to shine a spotlight on Ghaffer’s company and his outstanding saffron. Achieving this success was no mean feat, given all the country and its people had endured. Each award was followed by another then another. Judged each year to be the best saffron in the world by the Superior Taste Awards; an independant Chef and Sommelier based organization dedicated to testing and promoting superior tasting food and drink from around the world.
The head office of the company, the laboratory, the quality department and the packaging and logistics department are also located in Herat. And once the growing and harvesting process has concluded, the saffron is transported to the laboratory, stored for conservation under optimum humidity and temperature conditions, and a sample of each batch is then analysed for certification that the saffron fulfils the international quality standards. In 2009 Afghan Saffron created the first private laboratory dedicated exclusively to researching saffron and development of new production techniques.
Medicinally, saffron has a long history as part of traditional healing. Recent modern research has identified anti-carcinogenic (cancer-suppressing), anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immuno-modulating, and antioxidant properties. Many studies have also emerged recently, showing the beneficial effects of saffron in depression, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and Alzheimer ’s disease.
Antioxidants in saffron tea can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Crocetin indirectly helps to prevent risk of developing atherosclerosis and heart attack by reducing cholesterol levels in the blood. In 2005, Zheng et al. administered crocetin, the natural carotenoid antioxidant, to rabbits to determine its effect on the development of atherosclerosis. In this study, the scientists randomly assigned rabbits to three different diets for eight weeks: a standard diet, a high lipid diet (HLD), or a high lipid + crocetin diet. The HLD group developed hypercholesterolemia and atherosclerosis, while the crocetin-supplemented group decreased the negative health effects of a high lipid diet. This study further demonstrated a significant decrease in the aorta cholesterol deposits, atheroma, foam cells, and atherosclerotic lesions in the crocetin-fed group. They suggested that crocetin supresses the nuclear factor kappa B (NF-κB) activation in the aorta, which in turn decreases the vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) expression.
Premenstrual syndromes (PMS) benefits
Premenstrual syndromes are among the most common health problems reported by women, affecting around 40 percent of women of reproductive age. Saffron is considered as an excellent antispasmodic with ability to effectively relieve spasm pain. A study done by Hosseini et al. (2008) investigated the effect of saffron on PMS symptoms. Women aged 20—45 years with regular menstrual cycles who experienced PMS symptoms for at least six months were eligible for the study. Women were randomly assigned to either group A, who receive 15 milligrams of capsule saffron twice a day in the morning and evening or group B, who received a capsule placebo twice a day for a two menstrual cycles. To evaluate the results from the study the scientists used Premenstrual Daily Symptoms (PDS) questionnaire and Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D). The results from the study demonstrated a significant improvement in both tests (PDS and HAM-D) for the women in the saffron group compared to their pre-treatment symptoms; it also showed a significant improvement in symptoms compared to the placebo group.
Anxiety and Depression benefits
Depression is a serious disorder in today’s society with prevalence as high as 21 percent of the general population in some developed countries. Saffron has been demonstrated as effective anti-depressant in recent studies. In a double-blind, randomised control trial done by Akhondzadeh et al. (2004) participants were randomly assigned to receive a capsule of saffron (30 milligrams a day) or a capsule of a well-known antidepressant, imipramine (100 milligrams per day) for a six-week study. Saffron at this dose was found to be effective in a similar manner to imipramine in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. In another double-blind randomised control trial done by Mazidi et al. (2016), the anti-depressant effect of saffron was evaluated on 60 adult patients with anxiety and depression. The patients were randomised to receive a 50 mg saffron capsule or a placebo twice daily for 12 weeks. Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) questionnaires were used at baseline, 6 and 12 weeks after initiating medication and the saffron supplements demonstrated a significant effect on the BDI and BAI scores.
Because saffron is such an expensive spice it attracts some dishonest practices from sellers, such as mixing in some of the corn threads from the bulbs to stretch the saffron out to gain further profit. Anyone who has spent time buying saffron on the internet, including chefs will know it can be a very hit and miss experience. So I decided to do some research to find out who grows the best saffron in the world these days so I could write about it. Iran is the largest grower of saffron in the world, but it is not always consistent as it might be. The very best grade of saffron has all red threads and is called Premium Super Negin. This grade is hand picked, long saffron threads, and has no yellowish or greyish colour or parts in the strands.
Having tried the saffron sample Afghan Saffron Company sent (see photo), I am happy to recommend the quality of their saffron as the best I have ever tasted.
Source material: A COMPREHENSIVE STUDY OF AFGHAN SAFFRON by the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency https://www.healthaid.co.uk/healthaid-blog/saffron
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