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Saffron is known as the world’s most expensive spice. Why is it so expensive? Is it the quality? Is it the quantity available on the world market? Is saffron still expensive in 2021? The answer is all, neither, and somewhat. The biggest issue with the highest quality strains of saffron is manual labor. The picking process of the threads is long and tedious. Workers start in the fields picking the flower bulbs, which are then shipped to an (un)assembly line, where each thread has to be properly examined and graded by the local labor force. After filtering out different quality levels of saffron, the threads have to be stored, dried and finally shipped.
Unlike wheat fields, where you can come by with a mechanized thresher and easily reap the whole harvest, the flowers and threads within the saffron crocus are too delicate. Machinery in the fields would result in large amounts of unrecoverable waste. In the processing plant itself, only qualified processors can correctly identify the quality of each thread.
The end result is a difficult manual process that makes the price quite high; lending to the saffron mystique and relative rarity in cooking & culinary.
Year over year the price of saffron will fluctuate due to several factors. Weather plays a huge role in the amount of saffron able to be harvested. Saffron can’t be stored for long periods of time. Large harvests with great weather will drop the price. Then again, with Iran being a huge supplier of the world’s saffron, geopolitical conflict & issues can also play a role in the price of saffron. There have been situations where the weather was absolutely perfect, but the amount of saffron Middle East “Persia” was able to export is limited & governed. This results in the short supply, of an ultra-high quality harvest. Naturally, the price can skyrocket.
The harvest in 2020 has been a banner year, said almost no one ever. Covid-19, the Coronavirus, has had an impact on every business and industry globally; large and small. Some have fared better than others - how did the price of saffron do in 2020? Let’s have a look.
Traditionally, the world’s largest saffron importer is Hong Kong, followed by Spain and the UAE. Spain is of note, because they both cultivate and export saffron. It’s hard to measure which country uses the most saffron, but Iran is generally recognized as a top consumer because saffron is highly ingrained in the culture, and the spice is endemic to the region.
In 2020, global lockdowns have severely impacted two key industries that saffron has reliance on. The first being the restaurant and hospitality industry, the second being transport and procurement. The rolling global lockdowns coupled with elevated public fear has put many restaurants on temporary hiatus; closing doors for a period of time, or closing all together. This has generated a basic lack of demand. As the worldwide lockdowns continue into 2021 the demand for saffron will continue to be low which will but downward pressure on the price.
Transportation and procurement has created its own set of difficulties as each country has responded to Covid in a different way. In some cases national transport grids and import facilities are operational. In other cases, everything is on hard shut down to the outside world.
Even if restaurants are able to open and balance the books, the difficulty in importing the spice has also resulted in a significant market depression.
The end result is that this year, the price of saffron is falling through the floor. Now is as good a time as any and better, to buy, buy, buy - If you can find a worthy and reputable supplier. The current 2021 saffron prices have not been this low since the 1980’s which were plagued by geopolitical export issues such as the Iran/Iraq war and the Iran Contra affair.
Under a microscope, the biggest issue with Iran’s exports this year is the wide spread outbreak of Covid-19 in the European interior. Traditional consumers Spain, and Italy went into hard stay at home lockdowns. The consumption of non-necessities and more expensive goods fell off a cliff overnight. While Italy had stronger lockdowns, Spain is a traditionally larger consumer of Iranian saffron. Between the two, saffron producers in the east have suffered a hit to export profits. Other saffron producing nations such as India, the US, Italy, Morocco & more, have suffered similar setbacks in sales.
The industry will take a brief & recoverable hit in the grand scheme of things. Luckily, because saffron production is generally not automated and considered fairly rudimentary, the producers themselves don’t have to rely on large amounts of expensive, imported high tech harvesting implements from the west.
As the Covid-19 virus continues to spread the vaccines and attempts to distinguish the pandemic are in high gear. We expect the industry to fully recover from producer to provider, from farm to table, moving into the late hald of 2021.