Friday, February 9, 2018

Iran is a leader in saffron production, and the Khorasan province to the east of the country is most notable. In fact, Mashhad is arguably the best place to buy it. This photo that I snapped a few years back was probably the first time I had ever seen heaps of saffron that high.

I had heard of saffron harvesting tours in Khorasan province, but I didn’t know that I could also find one much closer to Tehran, in the town of Natanz between Kashan and Esfahan. As it happens, this desert town also offers the ideal conditions to cultivate saffron. And because it only grows for a few weeks in the fall, I jumped on the opportunity to take a harvesting tour myself. 

Upon arrival, our hosts, an elderly husband and wife named Amoo and Zan Amoo, greet us and walk us towards their plot of land. Did you catch their names? [Paternal] Uncle and [paternal] uncle’s wife. That’s it. That’s how they are introduced. How could you not love Iranians? 

Along the way, I’m struck by the fact that Natanz seems so abandoned: crumbling adobe walls, broken windows, crooked wooden doors on the verge of falling apart. We come across a feisty shepherdess (who’s easily 70 years old) and her modest flock of goats. She and Amoo exchange a few not-so-friendly words. Seems she did something she wasn’t supposed to, and Amoo is calling her out on it. Meanwhile, this strange group of tourists spooks the goats by getting too close to them trying to take pictures (I admit I’m probably the most guilty party here), and as if rehearsed, the goats suddenly all turn around and make a mad dash in the opposite direction, feisty shepherdess chasing after them with her stick in hand. 

Natanz | Iran | Shepherd
The feisty shepherdess and her goats

We carry on to the saffron fields, and on the way, we learn that though husband and wife, Amoo and Zan Amoo are technically also cousins, a practice more common in the past than now. As we near their field, I see the violet-colored flowers planted in rows contrasting beautifully against the dry, beige dirt. Amoo and Zan Amoo explain how to pick them correctly and tell us to feel free picking as many as we want because a new flower will grow back the very next day! And then we’re let loose.

I gently pick a few and once I have a bunch in my hand, I bring them up to my nose, wondering if they have a smell. They do- a faint honey scent. Zan Amoo tells us that when we’re done picking our share, we can take the flowers over to her, where she’ll weigh them, and we can pay her per kilo. Of course saffron weighs so little, I wonder how much a kilo would be and if anyone will really pick that much? If we pick the entire field, will it even amount to that much? 

Natanz | Iran | Saffron
Harvesting saffron

Over behind Zan Amoo’s weighing station, our hosts are brewing us saffron-infused tea which is boiling in a kettle over some charcoal- chai zoghâli, as they call it in Persian. The charcoal is supposed to add a special, smokey flavor. As I’m sipping on my tea, I watch the others in my tour go to Zan Amoo and ask her to weigh their flowers. But most people have only picked a couple of handfuls, and it’s not even worth weighing, so Zan Amoo gifts it to them. At least they offered to pay which is more than I can say for the ones who went to her saying, “This is all I took. Râzi bâsh,” basically meaning I don’t plan on paying you, so please don’t get upset with me. When it comes to taarof, it’s either feast or famine. 

Natanz | Iran | Saffron

Natanz | Iran | Saffron
Saffron field

Zan Amoo tells us that we need to carefully pick the red stigmas and let them dry completely before storing them, otherwise they will mold. But she already has some dried, ready-packed saffron for sale as well, and I buy a packet from her. After squatting for so long, picking the flowers one by one, then plucking the stigmas, letting them dry, and finally packing and selling them, I realize what a labor intensive job it is. It’s no wonder saffron is the world’s most expensive spice and is nicknamed red gold! 

Once we experience our brief stint as saffron harvesters, we move on. Natanz is such a small town, that the rest of the tour is a visit to the simple yet lovely and serene Sheikh Abdolsamad Mosque and a pottery workshop. I didn’t know that similar to places like Meybod, Natanz is also known for its pottery. 

Natanz | Iran | Mosque
Sheikh Abdolsamad Mosque

Natanz | Iran | Mosque
Sheikh Abdolsamad Mosque entrance

Natanz | Iran | Mosque
Ceiling of Sheikh Abdolsamad Mosque 

Natanz | Iran | Mosque
Sheikh Abdolsamad Mosque courtyard

Natanz | Iran | Pottery
Pottery workshop

Natanz | Iran | Pottery
Pottery workshop

In between these places, we walk back through the kooche bâgh, alleys in villages. It’s a beautiful fall day, the leaves are all different shades of yellow, orange, and green, and the mountain in the backdrop is capped in snow. Some fields are full of pomegranate trees, the fruit dried and dangling off the branches. Scattered along the dirt paths are also the discarded violet petals of the saffron flower, and though it seems like a waste, I guess there's not much you can do with them. 

Natanz | Iran | Saffron
Kooche bagh of Natanz

Natanz | Iran
The ruins I wanted to see before I took a tumble

We come across some ruins, and I think that instead of walking around it, I could climb to the top of the mound and can get a glimpse of the inside and a better view of the mountains. I run to the top, take my pictures, and turn around wondering how I’ll get back down. It’s not far, but it’s a rocky-sandy blend, and let’s just say that I have a history of tumbling down. I work up the nerve to make a run for it, but in the end lose my footing and proceed to add another notch to my history. I’m covered in dirt with a bloody knee and hand, but luckily my camera and cell phone escape unscathed. For the rest of the day, my tour mates will tell me, “Oh you have some dirt on your pants.” 
“Yah, I took a tumble,” I tell them. 
“What? When? Are you ok?” they ask concerned.
“I’m fine, the tour guide had a first-aid kit and she helped clean the wound.”

To this day, every time I see that scar on my knee, I remember Natanz. 


A saffron harvesting tour in Natanz, Iran

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