In our family cooking together or doing the dishes are often longer and livelier events than dinner itself, if we’re all home. We generally cooperate to get the task done but we enjoy being together in the kitchen, partly sharing the work but also getting caught up singing old songs we all know, dancing around the kitchen, laughing and telling stories.
An economist might call this inefficient. But there is something enchanting that gathers in the air as we’re working, something soft and light filled, swirling cloudlike and invisible, filled with stories. You can’t put a value on this cloud. It exists because we are together, because we have a history of being together in this way. There’s room in that cloud for squabbles and arguments, for confessions and tears and teasing. There’s room in that cloud for friends to come and go, for in-laws and out-laws. This cloud, the way of being together, is priceless.
Just recently, I’ve come to see this cloud as saffron-colored. Here’s why:
I wrote about Buddhist monks in my last post and their saffron colored robes. Like many religious communities, part of what defines their life together is shared service, working as a community. Historically, monks’ robes were made of salvaged scraps of material once discarded then stitched together, which seemed appropriate for a monk, abandonment of wealth and all that.
But I was a little shocked to learn that the garment was dyed using saffron – the world’s most expensive spice. Saffron sells for $250 – $300 an ounce. A kilogram in the UK would set you back nearly $18,000.
The ‘occasional-puritan’ in me ruffled her feathers a little. I found myself with raised eyebrows, standing right next to Judas Iscariot scoffing at the cost of the wasted perfume. So I began to pay attention to this extravagant little additive, used for both its subtle flavoring in cooking and it’s rich color.
In case – like me – you didn’t know, saffron is actually the ‘stigma’ of a purple crocus flower. 96% of the world’s saffron is produced in Iran, though India, Greece, Spain and Italy also produce the spice. The crocus is an autumn blooming variety, so not your regular spring version, but it looks much the same. There are usually three long, spindly, red stigmas inside the soft purple folds of each petal. The bloom happens over about 10 days in October/November – you’ve got to harvest the flowers in this window or the flavor deteriorates significantly.
It takes over 5,000 flowers to make an ounce of saffron. Five thousand! Every flower is hand picked in the field. The flowers are gently placed in baskets, which are delivered to long tables surrounded by busy families who gently pluck the red filaments from the soft purple petals and set them to dry. It takes one person about 40 hours of picking to collect enough flowers to make a kilogram of saffron – about two soccer fields of plants in bloom. But that kilogram can earn up to $18,000 at market.
What I noticed in the images of the saffron harvest around the world, were the teams of people needed to manage the harvest in that short ten-day window. In every image there are knots of women gathered in fields bent over baskets, busy picking and talking, laughing together. There are families with children, aunties, uncles and grandmothers around tables plucking out the red filaments for drying, chattering and gossiping, working side by side. This is not solo work – this is the work of a community, the work of a family.
When things are expensive, this usually means they’re scarce. Precious metals, for example, are precious because they’re rare. But purple crocus blooms with striking red filaments are not rare in this way, not like gold or diamonds. They grow freely in some parts of the world. What makes saffron costly is the labor-intensive work; what makes saffron expensive and extravagant is the value of another human being’s time.
That the world still values the time of another human being in this unshakeable way is incredible. Humanity has been harvesting saffron for some 3500 years and its value is still found in people.
I’ve never been to work the saffron fields, but I’d bet that something enchanting gathers as families work together, something soft and light filled, swirling cloudlike and invisible, filled with stories. And I bet there’s room in that cloud for squabbles and arguments, for confessions and tears and teasing. There’s room in that cloud for friends to come and go, for in-laws and out-laws. I’d bet this cloud, the way of being together, is priceless. I’d bet the real extravagance of saffron is the sharing of a family working together.
Yes, of course saffron is the most expensive spice in world. How could it not be? It is born of the story of a people, the fingerprints of a family on every strand. How could there be anything more appropriate in which to dye the garment of a monk, but a saffron bath, a rich celebration of the extravagance of human beings – together.