He's just mad about saffron

YELLOW FEVER: Mark Tyro plucks saffron's orange stigmas by hand.
YELLOW FEVER: Mark Tyro plucks saffron's orange stigmas by hand.

Most farmers and growers have an essential tool - a tractor, plough, drill, shearing handpiece, drench gun, rake or hoe. Mark Tyro has his thumb and forefinger.

The saffron grower and promoter of the fledgling industry has grown his nails so they can pluck the valuable threads from the centre of the crocus flower.

It's an indication of how basic the business of growing and harvesting saffron is. The small purple flowers grow close to the ground and have to be picked by hand, the picker choosing to squat, kneel or do an inelegant "bum shuffle". Then the saffron stigma, the red female filaments, are nipped out to be dried and packed.

Mr Tyro admits it is back-breaking, mind-numbing work, but says the rewards are worth it. Just 500 grams of saffron sells for between $10,000 and $15,000, with the grower's share being $3500-$4500. However, 75,000-95,000 flowers have to be picked first.

That is the "comfortable" yield from a 1000 square metres (quarter- acre) plot, but he is encouraging first- time growers to start with half that size.

He and partner Janice Potts, of Terraza Saffron, are attempting to pull together small growers around New Zealand into a strong organisation and to encourage new growers to join them. The aim is to tap into what promises to be an unlimited export market.

Mr Tyro estimates New Zealand has 100 growers producing 8 kilograms of saffron a year. He received an email from a buyer in Argentina recently asking for 400kg, worth at current prices more than $8 million. "I just laughed. It was such a ridiculous amount. But it shows what the market potential is for us."

Saffron is used in cooking to enhance flavour and aroma and to add colour. Dishes it can be added to range from savoury to sweet, including soup, pastry, pasta, bread, scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, mayonnaise and cream. At the Hastings Farmers' Market, they offer tastings of saffron meringues as an introduction to the spice's cooking possibilities.

Flavour and aroma are difficult to describe, with efforts varying from earthy, tea, hay to nutty. Mr Tyro says it is unique. "One gentleman told me it reminded him of walking into a library of old leather-bound books. But it can't be compared with anything else - it's just saffron."

He says the flavour should always be subtle - "a whisper that lingers at the end of a mouthful".

Saffron has a colourful history, being found in the red pigments on 50,000-year-old wall paintings in Iraq, depicted in Bronze Age frescoes in Crete and in ancient Chinese medical texts. Cleopatra is said to have added saffron to her bath to add pleasure to love-making and Alexander the Great to have used it to treat war wounds. A war was fought over it after the theft of a shipment in the Mediterranean in the 14th century.

The spice has long been used as a natural remedy, by the ancient Persians to treat melancholy, by the Tamils for headaches and labour pains, by the Chinese for various disorders, by the Egyptians for gastrointestinal ailments, by the Romans for wounds, coughs, colic and scabies, and it was used in Europe in the Middle Ages to treat the Black Death.

Modern science has also investigated its use and researchers in a study involving universities in Italy and Sydney reported last year that eating saffron regularly can protect the eye from damage from bright sunlight and help treat macular degeneration, the most common form of blindness in old age. Naturopaths also prescribe saffron as a treatment for depression.

Mr Tyro is a former meat inspector who became a house husband when the first of his three children was born so that Ms Potts could go back to her work as an accountant. In 2002, they joined the Terraza Saffron growers' network run by their Maraekakaho neighbours Ian and Rochelle Schofield. Five years later, over dinner, they found themselves agreeing to buy the business.

Since then, the emphasis has been less on growing and more on marketing and expanding the business.

Most of New Zealand's 100 growers are small, growing only for their own use, and some are growing a bit more than they need and selling it at market stalls. Others are producing from 20g to more than 500g. "They're wanting a guaranteed outlet season after season - that's where we come in," Mr Tyro says.

Terraza has 30 growers from Te Puke to Central Otago, who pick and dry their own saffron to be added to Terraza's stockpile and marketed. More than half are in Hawke's Bay.

This year's Terraza Saffron production is 3.5kg and restaurants, fine food outlets, health food stores and naturopaths are the buyers. He dismisses the 400kg Argentinian query as a tyre-kicking exercise, but says he is forced to turn away business every week. "I had a ring from a chef in Auckland the other day looking for 1kg. That's a fair chunk of the business at any time, but I had to tell him we were pretty much all spoken for."

He wants more to join the network so he can start to meet the growing demand. He offers new growers 1000 crocus bulbs, or corms, for $2500 and a three-year supply contract with access to his knowledge base.

The corms like sunny, free- draining soil and flower over six weeks in April-May, with a three-week peak. By the end of the year the mother corm has died, leaving up to six daughter corms. They are dug up every two or three years and replanted. Mr Tyro says that two years after planting the first 1000 corms new growers can expect to have 9000 to 10,000 corms of varying sizes.

At the season's peak 100 flowers will produce a gram of saffron and in off-peak, when the flowers are smaller, that rises to 180 flowers. A small, hobby plot starting with 1000 corms would soon be producing 200-300g. "That's a net return of $1600-$2700 on today's market - not bad for five or six weeks' work. You're never going to be a millionaire on it, but it fills a gap."

However, he warns that dedicated hard work is needed for that period. The flowers have to be picked every day, rain or shine, and can grow so quickly at the peak that two pickings may be needed. Then, for every hour spent picking, another two hours is needed for processing.

However, he sees the small 300g family business coping easily - half an hour picking in the morning and then 1-2 hours processing in the evening.

Once picked, the stigmas then have to be dried. Some people use their ovens, but most buy a circulating dehydrator, available second hand for $100. Reducing the moisture content to an international standard is part of the quality Terraza offers. Its main marketing edge is to offer only saffron produced that year. Anything older is of a lesser quality, he says.

He is working hard to get the message out to prospective growers, gardeners and lifestylers with space to spare, promoting saffron growing at small block field days and seminars.

He recently took part in a Export Hawke's Bay mentoring programme where small businesses were analysed and shown ways to improve.

"The initial reaction, without exception, was a horrified, 'what do you think you're doing', but by the time they'd finished pulling us to bits they had all changed to 'wow, you have a huge potential'."

Saffron

* The world's most expensive spice, selling in New Zealand at $10,000-$15,000 for 500 gram.

* The stigmas from 75,000-95,000 flowers can produce 500g Used to enhance the aroma and flavour of a   range of foods, from savoury to sweet.

* Only 8-12 stigmas are needed with a dish Said to give the eater a natural high - singer Donovan called them "mellow yellow".

* Also used as a natural treatment of a variety of medical conditions, including depression, aches and pains   and gastrointestinal ailments.

* Cleopatra used it in her bath to add pleasure to love-making.

The Dominion Post