Saffron has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes all over the world for centuries. Iran currently produces approximately 70% of the global supply of saffron but Kashmiri saffron is considered to be the world's finest.
Saffron needs a cool dry climate and rich soil with excellent drainage and organic content to flourish. Pampore in Kashmir has an abundance of these elements and is renowned for the quality of its harvest. There are other fertile alluvial plateaus in Kashmir but saffron is only grown in Pampore. Local people say there is a certain magical element in the soil that helps the flowers to bloom and the stigmas to be imbued with aroma.
The stigmas of Kashmir saffron are extremely long, have a thicker head and are a very deep red colour; the size of the stigmas is a good indication of the suitability of the soil and climate for optimal growth.
According to Kashmiri legend, saffron was brought to the region by two sufi ascetics, Khawja Masood wali (r.a) and Sheikh Sharif-u-din wali (r.a) during the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. Both men fell sick while visiting the region and beseeched a cure for illness from a local tribal chieftain. When the chieftain obliged, the two holy men reputedly gave them a saffron crocus bulb as payment and thanks. Mohammed Yusuf Teng, the famous Kashmiri poet and scholar, recorded a different history though. He observed that the plant had been cultivated in Kashmir for more than two thousand years.
Whatever the facts are, a golden-domed shrine and tomb is dedicated to the the two saints in the saffron trading town of Pampore and to this day grateful prayers are offered to them both during the saffron harvesting season in late autumn. At this time, tens of thousands of villagers pick the crocus flowers at a furious pace and heap them into wicker baskets. Sacks of flowers are then taken home, or transported to laborers, and the stigmas are removed carefully from the flowers. Nothing is wasted. The petals are eaten as a vegetable, animals are given the stems and of course, the red stigmas, the golden herb, are distributed worldwide for herbal and medicinal use as the finest Kashmiri saffron.