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BERLIN, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Once cultivated by Persian kings and believed to have healing powers, saffron is now fuelling the growth of a small German business that imports tons of the spice from Iran to make fine food products for sale in Europe and the Gulf.
"We try to capture the soul of saffron and the magic it contains," says Michael Sabet, an Iranian-German business executive who quit his banking job six years ago to found Miasa GmbH, which is now doubling its revenues every year.
Sabet is one of many German business leaders who see great business opportunities opening up in Iran after the end of sanctions related to its nuclear weapons programme. Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel heads to Iran next week with a planeful of executives keen to rebuild trade ties.
"Germany has always had a good relationship with Iran and I think it will continue to expand," Sabet said. "I hope the end of sanctions will allow exports to rise and have a positive effect on the import business as well."
Miasa delivers large quantities of high quality saffron to industrial users, but also produces 20 different products ranging from saffron-infused sea salt, honey, rice and even coffee that are sold via the company's website or at luxury stores like Berlin's famous Kaufhaus des Westens, or KaDeWe.
It also produces a liquor infused with elderberry, lychees and saffron that sells for nearly 40 euros ($44.90) a bottle, and even comes in a non-alcoholic version for sale to Muslim countries.
Sabet says the business is growing fast given increasing demand for specialty "fine foods," the rise of gourmet cooking shows and the increasing popularity of Middle Eastern cooking. Sweden is one of the biggest consumers of saffron because the spice plays a key role in Christmas baked goods, he said.
In the Gulf, more consumers are also looking for packaged products such saffron rice, he said.
Initially Sabet tried to grow saffron - which comes from the flower of the crocus plant - in Germany's Black Forest, but soon realised the yield per plant was far too low to produce the quantities needed for industrial-scale sales.
"It takes about 100 plants to produce one gram of saffron," he said. "So you can imagine how big the fields have to be to produce one kilo."
Iran produces about 90 percent of the world's saffron, but hundreds of years ago, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy were also important producers during the Middle Ages.
The idea for Miasa was born when Sabet's Iranian father and German mother brought back a can of saffron from a trip to Iran.
"I was just fascinated," said Sabet, who was born in Germany. "So I decided to jump into a new adventure."
His father has since died, but Sabet has developed a whole new appreciation for Iranian culture through his work, including yearly visits for the saffron harvest.
"This has opened up whole new horizons for me. I'm getting back into the language and learning so much," he said.
"Iran has had a bad reputation as part of the so-called 'axis of evil,' but I'm sure they'll get over it." ($1 = 0.8908 euros) (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)