THE SPICE OF LIFE

Iran 2017 | AGRICULTURE | FOCUS: HIGH-END FOOD PRODUCTS

Iran is the garden of some of the world's most exclusive delicacies and is ready to share with the world a taste of some of its most precious and delicious assets.

Do you remember the last time you had a handful of pistachio nuts? Odds are they came from Iran, as the country is responsible for half of the global supply. Iran is also a top contender in walnuts, pomegranates, and many types of berries and stone fruits. All of these are most certainly delicious products among the pricier items on the bill when you return from the weekly grocery shopping. The tasty Terfeziaceae, or desert truffle, is said to grow where lightning strikes the desert sands. This truffle, which grows in a number of countries, including Iran, is a more esteemed delicacy. Yet, where money is doing the talking, it is not even close to the real gems of Iran's food basket.

Saffron, otherwise known as “red gold” or the “king of spices,” is believed to be the cure for almost 100 diseases and is a much sought-after ingredient to color or flavor dishes. Greeks used it to scent and purify their temples, and Cleopatra supposedly used it as a facial mask. It takes 110,000-170,000 flowers of the crocus sativus and 40 labor-intensive hours to produce just one kilogram, and this is reflected in its whopping price tag. The retail price goes by the gram, which is understandable given that it is 20 times more valuable than silver. No other edible bounty of the earth's soil is more expensive than saffron, and most interestingly, 94% of global production takes place in Iran. And yet, there is one product that even more approximates the interface between poetry on your taste buds and personal bankruptcy. To find it, the southern waters of the Caspian Sea are your place of interest.

Of all the products that make their way to the world's finest cuisines, nothing exudes luxury like caviar, or the edible “black gold.” Traditionally, caviar refers to the roe of wild sturgeon, typically from the Caspian and Black Seas. By the time it gained its international popularity in the 19th century, Persian, Russian, and European royal houses had already feasted on caviar for many centuries. Records from Aristotle mention caviar in extravagant Greek banquets. Even today, UK law decrees that wild sturgeon in British waters, once taken, becomes property of the monarch, as his or her royal prerogative. Due to its eggs, sturgeon is a royal fish, and Iran tops the list of the world's largest caviar producers. But even more, it is home to the queen of queens, the sturgeon that bears the most exclusive caviar of all. The Iranian Beluga is an albino sturgeon that calls the southern waters of the Caspian Sea its home. The eggs of a female centennial Iranian Beluga fish are known under the name Almas. This type of caviar comes at a price of around USD35,000 per kilogram and is worthy of its name, white gold.

Although her eggs surround themselves with the aura of success, the tale of the sturgeon is a tragic one that has hit the Iranian Beluga particularly hard. At the dawn of the 21st century, annual Iranian caviar exports reached 40 tons. At the same time, over-fishing by different Caspian states pushed wild sturgeon stocks to the brink of extinction. UN-sponsored conservation policies and a trade embargo on wild sturgeon have since then marginalized the export value of Iranian caviar and transformed the industry into a farming business. However, as the recent lifting of sanctions has coincided with the farmed sturgeon stocks reaching the age of maturity for harvesting eggs, Iran might witness a revival of one of its most classic, and classy, industries. Together, red, black, and white gold will once again tell the story of Iran as home of the world's best delicacies.