Central Otago's golden spice travels far

An ancient spice is taking root in the New Zealand's Central Otago region, where a family-owned business is responsible for producing some of the world’s best saffron.

From the old goldmining town of Bannockburn, Heart of the Desert Saffron distributes saffron from boutique growers in Central Otago and Canterbury throughout New Zealand, and to US, Australian, Asian and London outlets.

Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and New Zealand saffron suits chefs who prefer quality over quantity, says Maurice Watson, owner of Heart of the Desert Saffron.

Kiwi celebrity chef Peter Gordon is a fan, as well as top restaurants and luxury lodges in New Zealand.

High-end saffron

New Zealand saffron is a high-end product that’s produced on a small scale, and with a strong focus on quality.

"Iran produces the majority of the saffron in the world - at least 95% which is 220 to 280 tonnes a year. New Zealand’s saffron production is perhaps 10kg a year," Watson says.

Heart of the Desert Saffron has developed a unique kiln drying process that enhances the safranal essential oil content of the saffron threads - so the taste is more distinctive than traditional air-dried spices.

Traditional dishes

Saffron is an essential ingredient in many traditional dishes worldwide, including Spanish paella, French bouillabaisse, Iranian chelo kabab, Moroccan tajine, and as a condiment for rice in Indian cuisine. The spice is also used medicinally, and to make textile dyes and perfumes.

The spice is extracted from the dried flowers of the autumn crocus, which originated in southwest Asia. When used in cooking, saffron imparts a yellow-orange colour and complexity of flavour to food.

"There are many myths about growing saffron - such as that it came from arid areas and therefore you don’t need to water it much or apply fertiliser. Now I often say, show me a plant that doesn’t like water and fertiliser," says Watson.

Complex aroma

Watson says Heart of the Desert saffron is considered some of the best in the world because of its strong, rich and complex aroma.

During harvest time, the Watson family picks about 15,000 crocus flowers each day. It takes about 125g of flowers to make a gram of saffron.

"In New Zealand, saffron growing is a small scale boutique industry. We control every step (except for weather) from planting to sale and it’s based on science, not hearsay or tradition. There is no floral waste in our saffron - we don’t add anything else to the final product," Watson says.

"It is fresh and most Iranian saffron is at least a year old before it gets to the shelves."

Central Otago saffron

Maurice Watson moved his family south to Bannockburn from the northern South Island city of Nelson 14 years ago.

With just "a small footprint of land" of less than one acre, Watson looked for something to grow that would suit Central Otago’s raw continental climate.

"Central Otago has high summer soil temperatures over a long period and there’s minimal rainfall at harvest of Bannockburn," says Watson.

Saffron ticked all the right boxes because it is a plant that likes hot summers but is also able to tolerate frost and snow.

The plant is grown successfully in several New Zealand locations from the deep south - Central Otago and Lorneville, in Southland - to Hawke’s Bay and Hokianga, in the far north of the North Island.

Growing saffron

Saffron, which is grown from corms or bulbs, grows well in areas of New Zealand where there are warm summers and winter chill, which is why Central Otago producers do well.

Crocus plants bloom within a two-week window, and must be harvested quickly at dawn before they wilt. Skilled harvesters cut flowers at the base using their fingernails.

Saffron threads are produced by drying the crocus flower stigma. Dried saffron can last for up to two years when stored properly in an airtight container.

Background: Bannockburn

Bannockburn is a small town with a colourful history that goes back to Otago’s early goldmining days.

The Central Otago region is now also famous for a different kind of liquid gold - award-winning pinot noir. Vineyards at Bannockburn include the world-renowned Mt Difficulty winery.

The town, with a population of just 126 people, has also retained much of its historical charm. Heritage buildings in the town centre include Bannockburn Hotel, post office, Stewart’s store and several old miners’ cottages.

Nearby Stewart Town, just a short trek away, is a goldmining ghost town with mining cottage ruins and the remains of an old orchard.