British-Indian Mahbir Thukral, 30, launched the brand Mahbir Premium Indian Saffron at the BBC Good Food Show Winter in the UK on November 24, 2016.
The Coventry-based business, with offices in the Netherlands and India, sells strands of 100% pure red stigma‐tip saffron in gift boxes and has also created three ready-to-eat foods infused with the spice: Belgian milk chocolate, apple jam and marmalade.
It is selling the food items online and is seeking listings with premium retailers.
From savory to sweet
“For many European consumers, the very concept of having saffron in milk chocolate is new because they would naturally associate it with paella or risotto,” Thukral, who left a marketing position at International Flavors & Fragrances to start his own business, told ConfectioneryNews.
"In a lot of Eastern dishes, saffron is used predominately in sweet products or sweet dishes whereas European consumers use it predominantly in savory dishes,” he said.
Mahbir is selling 100 g and 35 g saffron-infused chocolate bars as well as pralines. "At the moment it's completely my own brand, but if a major hotel company said we want to do it with our logo on it, then I would happily do so,” said the young entrepreneur Thukral.
The company has set a recommended retail price for the 100 g bars of €5.05 in the Netherlands and £4.55 in the UK ($5.52).
Premium retail and airlines
Thukral said listings at premium UK retailers such as Waitrose and Selfridges would be ideal for the brand, as well as stores in premium hotels chains, such as Radisson and the Marriott.
Mahbir is already in discussions with airline companies, such as Emirates and Etihad.
"I've been trying to approach Jet Airways (Mumbai-based airline) because I think that would be the right fit," added Thukral.
Formulating with saffron
The company sources its saffron directly from a cooperative in Kashmir.
In the chocolate, the saffron is dried and added as complete strands. "Saffron when it is grounded gets oxidized. Like with all spices, they should never be exposed to any light because they quickly deteriorate,” said Thukral.
He continued: "I didn't want to have bitter saffron like you have bits of sea salt. We needed to experiment at which stage in the chocolate manufacturing process in which the saffron should be added to get a rounded flavor profile."
The company initially had plans for saffron-infused Dutch cheese and Italian pasta, but these concepts were ditched partly due to formulation concerns.
"For example with the cheese, we experimented and with the natural aging fermentation process, the saffron congregates in one part of the cheese automatically and you don’t have any control of that. That's one of the reasons the cheese hasn't worked out,” Thukral said.
The company owner went to ISM last year and spoke to Barry Callebaut about supplying chocolate for the brand, but the quantities were insufficient for Barry Callebaut, so Thukral opted for a contract chocolate maker just outside Antwerp, Belgium, which supplies major supermarkets.
Saffron petals and pure red sigma
The company is using saffron flower petals in the chocolate, which Thukral claims is an industry first.
Petals are typically thrown away when saffron is extracted, but Thurkal thought the petals could add visual appeal evocative of dried rose petals found in some India sweets.
"Last year, we put the petals in the same ovens the saffron is dried in and it didn’t work - it started going mouldy because there was too much moisture in the flower petal. Then, together with the University of Kashmir, we used a dehydration process,” said Thukral.
The entrepreneur said the company’s saffron is pure red stigma tip saffron. "The red stigma tip is what is the highly-prized part," he said.
“Typically, saffron - when sold in the mainstream supermarkets - half the strand is red [red stigmas] and the other half is yellowy-white [the style].
“Even though the style is edible, it doesn’t have any flavor and a lot of the manufacturers add it in to increase the net weight of the overall product,” Thukral continued.
Mahbir Premium Indian Saffron has registered addresses in the UK, the Netherlands and India. Thukral is the company's only full-time employee but he has support from friends and family.
Mahbir will this weekend launch Premium Indian Saffron at the Marriott Hotel in Amsterdam during Hotelnacht, an event where local residents can stay in the city’s top hotels at cut prices.
"Since I spent the last few years in Amsterdam working with IFF, the Netherlands gives me a footprint to get into the European market,” said Thukral.
'The saffron king'
Asked about his ambitions for the company in the next five years, Thurkral said:"Really to be considered the saffron king! I want to be considered the first premium food product from India, leading entry into the European marketplace and expanding into the Middle East and North America."
He also hopes to expand the company’s chocolate range with nut inclusions, also sourced from Kashmir.