History of the most expensive spice attracts southern grower

By Sally Rae

Central Otago's Roberta Laraman loves growing saffron. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Central Otago's Roberta Laraman loves growing saffron. Photo / Otago Daily Times

It's the world's most expensive spice and it is being grown in the South Island's Mackenzie District.

Saffron - the red stigma, or threads, from the crocus sativus flower - commands a high price.

But for Central Otago woman Roberta Laraman, growing saffron at Twizel is "a love thing".

"I'm not in it for the money. There's just something when you read the history of saffron, something quite special about it," Mrs Laraman said.

So for about five weeks of the year, she leaves her Cromwell home and heads to Twizel to harvest the crop - a most labour intensive and painstaking job.

It was after visiting Iran, with countryside similar to the barren hills around Alexandra only on a much greater scale, and seeing "acres and acres" of saffron growing, that she was inspired to plant some corms at Twizel, where the climate is ideal.

She sourced them from her daughter, Amber MacMillan, who also grows saffron near Cromwell, and had a vision of creating Aoraki Saffron.

While traditionally grown in Spain, Iran, India and Greece, New Zealand saffron was twice as efficient because of the drying method, she said.

Dehydrators were used, rather than drying threads in a sieve over an open fire which evaporated the volatile oils.

Unlike most plants, all the leaf growing was over winter, with drying-off from late spring and the soil needed to be warmer than 20C to set new flowers in the corms.

Flowering and harvesting was in early April or when soil temperatures dropped below 17C - it was later this year as the weather had been so warm.

There were 150 flowers to 1g dried stigma and Laraman struggled to come to terms with the concept that Iran exported between 175-220 tonnes of saffron to Spain.

Top restaurants in New Zealand pay about $19 a gram for top-quality saffron, which could be used in many dishes, both sweet and savoury; including sauces, dressings and soups, with fish, chicken, vegetables and in baking, while saffron ice-cream was "simply delicious", Laraman said.

She makes saffron shortbread and also enjoys it added to stewed apples and rhubarb. When it came to using it, less was better than more.

The flowers smelled like "runny honey" when picked, while the drying process created a musty, runny honey smell.

Over centuries, saffron has been highly revered. Buddhist monks' robes were dyed with saffron and it has many medicinal uses.

While nomads travelled around with their tents picking saffron during harvest season in Iran, picking at Twizel was a solo job.

She did not mind the fact that it was very labour intensive. "I'm retired, what else am I going to do?"

Many people had planted saffron corms - "a bit like me, originally with the romantic idea of it all" - but not all had been successful.

Rabbits were a problem, while some people found the weeding and harvesting hard work.

Those getting into saffron with the aim of making money would need to have a "huge plot".

The harvest could not be relied upon unless it was large-scale which would require workers to harvest and that came at a cost.

Most of her saffron ended up at The Mediterranean Market in Queenstown.

- Otago Daily Times

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