CULTURE

A boost for Kozani crocus crop

KOZANI – A campaign is under way to revive the Kozani crocus industry which produces the prized medicinal herb saffron. The Kozani Crocus Cooperative, which standardizes and distributes all local production, has been escalating efforts to protect and promote the crop, culminating in a joint venture with the Korres natural products firm which is to package organically produced saffron and distribute it at pharmacies around the country and its stores abroad. The cooperative will continue to distribute to supermarkets. Since it was founded in 1996, Korres has had a strong tradition in herbal products, beginning with a throat pastille made with honey and aniseed. The firm’s involvement in saffron follows on from its development of Chios mastic gum products, according to Orestis Davias, head of the firm’s New Products Development. «As a company, we are interested in plants of Greece’s flora that have valuable properties – first with mastic gum, now with crocus. We will continue with other plants in the future,» he explained. Established in 1971, the Kozani Crocus Cooperative recently embarked on a program to revive the industry which has suffered in recent years due to competition from cheap imports from Iran, where labor costs are lower. So Kozani’s producers are not only emphasizing the higher quality of their product, but have switched over from mainly bulk exports to packaged products that are both conventionally and organically grown (the latter accounts for 30-40 percent of total production). A new export director has for the past eight months been working on establishing contacts with distributors and organizing displays at international trade fairs. «The Greek crocus product, which has been granted appellation of origin status, is gaining recognition,» director Nikolaos Patsiouras told Kathimerini English Edition at the cooperative’s headquarters just outside Kozani in the village of Krokos last week. «We have concluded contracts with major firms in Germany and Switzerland. By the end of November, we expect to have reached agreement with another distributor in France and we are negotiating with customers in the USA and Spain,» he added. The Kozani crocus, Crocus sativus, was imported from Austria in 1736 and is just one of about 17 varieties of the plant. (The wild crocus found in Greece is smaller and not commercially viable.) The harvesting period is restricted to a few weeks every autumn. The blooms open only in sunlight and once open, must be picked (carefully in such a way as to ensure that the petals, stamen and pistils detach separately from the stem) before nightfall. A heavy rainfall can ruin the crop. Painstaking process The flowers are gathered in baskets and the petals separated from the stamens and pistils in an apparatus developed by the cooperative. It is the red filament of the crocus’s pistil that produces saffron – not the yellow stamen, so after the drying process, the two have to be painstakingly separated by hand. This has traditionally been the work of the women in the family, who spend the long winter evenings sitting around a table piled high with the red and yellow filaments. There are now about 1,000 crocus farmers cultivating about 600 hectares, down from 1,200 hectares 10 years ago, when they produced 10 tons of saffron (compared to just 3 tons now). More than 150,000 flowers are needed to make one single kilogram of saffron, taking six workdays for the harvesting alone, and at a cost of 50 euros per day if outside help has to be brought in. The producer will receive around 600 euros for that kilo a year later, after having spent 300 euros on labor. A sign posted at the cooperative office urges farmers not to pay field workers more than 35 euros a day so as to keep prices down, yet few will work for less than 45 or 50, according to local farmers. Large families are more fortunate in this respect, for if a farmer has to hire outside help, not only do his overheads increase, but he is also at risk of having wasted the money if it rains. Patsiouras said Western Macedonia’s Regional Administrator Andreas Leoudis has thrown his weight behind the new promotion campaign and is urging the state to do more by providing start-up subsidies for new farmers, a move he believes could result in a doubling of the crop within two years. «I believe we can encourage more farmers to grow crocus, particularly as tobacco is being phased out,» he explained. The superior quality of the Kozani crocus is what the cooperative is counting on to boost sales as the public, both at home and abroad, is made aware of its benefits. Scientific experiments carried out by the Agricultural University of Athens have shown that the retionoic acid and carotenoids in Crocus sativus help fight cancer. The crocus was mentioned by Galen, Dioscurides and Hippocrates as a painkiller and for its antipyretic and other properties. But its most popular use is in the kitchen, where it is widely used around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, from Iran (the largest producer with 150 tons of saffron a year) to Spain. In Greece, however, even in Kozani, it is not widely used. «Greeks are not very familiar with the use of more exotic spices,» said Davias. «Spain, which has a population of about 50 million, consumes 15 tons a year. We should be consuming about 3 tons, but current consumption is only about 400 kilos, up from 70 kilos just five years ago,» he added. Patsiouras said saffron’s reputation as an expensive spice is mistaken. «One gram of saffron is enough for 30 meals. And the price also depends on the packaging – the cheapest is about 2.50 euros. Organic saffron, sold in an airtight box for 5 euros, if stored away from light and damp, lasts for up to three years,» he explained. The cooperative has printed a number of illustrated recipes in Greek and English, including Spaghetti Carbonara, Risotto ala Milanese, Spicy Chicken, Potatoes with Saffron and Saffron Cake. Available from the Crocus Cooperative: 50010 Krokos, Kozani, tel +30.24610.63283/64114, fax 24610.63620, e-mail: [email protected]