Laborious and luxurious, saffron takes root again in southwestern Japan

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Laborious and luxurious, saffron takes root again in southwestern Japan

  • Picked and dried by hand, saffron grown in Saga Prefecture has a surprisingly long history among rural farmers. | KAYOKO HIRATA PAKU

HAYANOSE, SAGA PREF. – Kisao Nishi swiftly handpicks three crimson stigmas from a blooming saffron flower before moving onto another. November is a busy time for him — with the help of an assistant, he works against the clock to harvest one of the world’s most expensive and sought-after spices.

“There are about 70 or 80,000 flowers growing here,” Nishi, 71, tells me as we stand amid his tanada (rice terraces) tucked deep into mountain valleys in northeastern Kyushu, in the town of Hayanose, Saga Prefecture.

He beckons me to an unassuming nearby house. Inside, rows and rows of mauve saffron flowers peek out from stacked wooden shelves. The air is musty (windows are always kept closed and shaded to protect the delicate plants), but there’s another faintly sweet aroma wafting around.

Saffron flowers bloom for just two fleeting weeks of the year, and the stigmas must be extracted and dried within hours of harvesting to preserve peak flavor and aroma. The aromatic spice adds an ambrosial touch to risotto, bouillabaisse, paella, custards and sauces that no other spice can replicate.

It’s a treasured crop with a painstakingly manual harvesting process that cannot be done with automation. Currently, there’s no procedure to mechanically separate the stigma from the plant, thus requiring patience and quick fingers during the short harvest window before the flowers wilt and deteriorate the stigma.

“There’s three stigmas per flower, so to make one gram of saffron, you need about 150 to 200 flowers,” Nishi explains as he gently twists the petals of a flower open to reveal the stigma. “Plus, you need to discard the white part of the stigma and any impurities by hand. It requires a lot of nimble work.”

Hayanose is one of the few areas in Kyushu that has grown saffron for centu

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