With production in decline and concerns of adulteration looming large, the prestigious GI tag could restore saffron to its former glory
On July 25, Kashmir saffron joined the likes of Darjeeling tea, the Alleppey green cardamom, black rice from Manipur and the Guntur chilli in getting the Geographical Indication (GI) tag. According to Article 22 (I) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS), GI tags are “indications which identify a good as originating in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographic origin." And Kashmir saffron, grown in Pampore at an altitude of 1600 metres, with its long strands and deep colour, clearly fulfilled the criterion. The Jammu and Kashmir lieutenant governor, G.C. Murmu, has hailed this as a “momentous decision", one which is likely to put the spice on the world map.
Those who hail from the valley feel that this has been a long time coming. Prateek Sadhu, executive chef and co-owner, Masque, Mumbai, recalls that while growing up in Kashmir, saffron was treated like a precious ingredient in the house. His mother would keep it in a “dabba within a dabba". Over the years, he has used saffron from Spain and Iran, but nothing comes close to the high-grade varietal from Kashmir. “Two strands are all you need. It is so potent with a deep rich colour," says Sadhu.
So, is the GI tag is the shot in the arm that saffron production in the valley needs? According to a recent report in the Hindu, saffron production has seen a steep decline of around 65 percent in recent years. Shubra Chatterji, culinary researcher and director of award-winning shoes such as Chakh Le India for NDTV and Lost Recipes for Epic Television Networks, attributes this downward spiral to several reasons. She says that political instability, change in weather patterns and the youth not interested in taking up the profession of their forefathers all play a part in this decline. “The GI tag will instil a sense of pride in the people of Pampore to take this up again," says Chatterji, who has visited the region in the past for research.
This development is likely to infuse a sense of confidence in the consumer regarding the authenticity of the produce as well. Kashmir saffron has been plagued with concerns about adulteration, with consumers preferring to use the variety from Iran. “Today, 80-90 percent of the world’s saffron comes from Iran. I don’t rate it as good as the Kashmir saffron, but it has zero adulteration," says Sanjay Raina, master chef and owner of Mealability, which offers gourmet Kashmiri cuisine in New Delhi. This adulteration, he elaborates, is not caused by producers in Kashmir but by third parties and middlemen based in the cities. Chatterji concurs, and adds that everything from hibiscus and pomegranate peel to coloured thread is passed off as saffron these days. “Saffron flowers bloom for a very short period—just 15 days in November—and each flower has just three strands. So, to increase weight, middlemen people soak strands in glycerine to increase weight," she says. Hopefully, this certification will help cull this practice and remove third parties, who are not from the region, from the process.
Raina feels this, together with the setting up of a spice park in the valley, creates a win-win situation for the industry. “For customers, the tag creates the same distinction as between a branded and a non-branded product. It assures people of provenance," he says. For producers from the region, it gives them a legal protection, of sorts. He elaborates on this through an example, “Say, I am a producer of saffron in Pampore and someone else farms the same spice in Almora. Only I am authorised to sell my produce as Kashmiri saffron and not the people from other regions."
However, the path to recovery is not going to be all that simple. Kurush Dalal, an archaeologist and culinary anthropologist, remains a little skeptical of how the checks will be enforced on ground. “Who will study the various grades of saffron and work out those gradations? How will the checks be enforced? This will require time and money and a shift from the traditional workings of bureaucracy. If the agriculture department in Jammu and Kashmir has the know-how for this, then great. But until I see some results on the ground, with a change for farmers and producers, I will remain skeptical," he says.
Meanwhile, the growing consensus is that many more ingredients need to get a GI tag to be rescued from ignominy. According to Chatterjee, it is one way of preventing food produce and practices from being lost. This is particularly important in those regions where the locals are veering away from indigenous products. “Amaranth is such a beautiful produce that grows in the mountains. But you will find kids there eating maida Maggi as an imitation of the tourists from the cities who come there," she says. On a personal note, she would like to see the Bandel cheese from West Bengal, made only by a handful of families now, getting a GI tag. “It’s sad that we run after the cheeses from the West when we have such beautiful varieties of our own. Maybe a tag will inspire us to accord them the importance they deserve," she adds.