Greek saffron, known as the "red gold" of the Greek land, is expected to soon penetrate the Chinese market, landing on the shelves of Chinese shops by the beginning of 2019.

Speaking to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA), President of the Kozani Saffron Producers Cooperative Nikos Patsiouras said that entering the Chinese market had been a very long and arduous process but one that, if successful, will greatly benefit both saffron producers and the Greek economy as a whole.

"It appears to be heading toward a good outcome...For four days a Chinese delegation that was in Kozani from October 31 went over everything with a fine-tooth comb and I believe that, by the end of the current year or early 2019 at the latest, our saffron will be imported as a spice in the distant and vast Chinese market," he said.

Greek saffron is produced exclusively in the northern Greek region of Kozani. The cultivated areas cover up to 600 hectares, with about 100 of them being used exclusively for organic cultivation. Approximately 1,000 families in the region earn their income by cultivating the saffron plant. One kilo of saffron sells for between 1,350-1,500 euros. The yield for every 1,000 square metres of cultivated land is between 700 grams and 1 kilo of the product. Saffron requires a very specific climate and soil conditions to thrive. The soil needs to be dry and well drained to avoid fungus infections and the land flat, without trees; the summers need to be hot and the winters cold. Seeding takes place between June and July and the flowers are harvested around end-October and early November. Once the flowers appear in the field, farmers have to race to collect them because they do not last long. Saffron is very sensitive to humidity and the longer it remains on the plant the more it risks losing its distinctive colour and aroma. The flower buds open at dawn and by 10:00 in the morning on the same day, the women of Kozani will have gathered them in their baskets or aprons and taken them back to their houses. This process lasts 20 to 25 days. After harvesting, the flower stigmas need to be dried very carefully. The next stage is separating the red stigmas from the yellow stamens, the pollen and any impurities. All this is done manually and can last up to 60 days.

According to Patsiouras, approximately 85,000 flowers are required to yield a single kilo of fresh saffron stigmas, with one kilo of fresh stigmas reduced to 200 grams of dried final product. This year's production is estimated at 2 tons, down by over 50 pct compared to previous years due to the prolonged dry weather.

"Fortunately, we have enough reserves from last year to satisfy the need of all our existing and future customers," said Patsiouras, who also unveiled the cooperative's plans for future exports to the United States and the United Arab Emirates.