Saffron-A Powerful Petal

Saffron-A Powerful Petal

A body doesn’t soon forget harvesting saffron. For days fingers are deeply purple-stained from plucking soft, dawn-damp crocuses. The skin smells all over of saffron’s honey-sweetness as surely as if you’d been bathing in the stuff. The back aches from stooping in the fields filling tiny baskets. And as for hobbling around in thickly mud-encrusted shoes, well, best just to give up and throw them away.

Your mind doesn’t easily let go of a harvest’s images either. Early-morning light shimmering across dewy lines of plants that stripe the chocolate soil. Hunched figures in the mist, patiently picking. Then later, sitting with village matriarchs around a kitchen table piled high with plump flowers as they tease the vivid red stigmas out from between petals and amass small piles of raw saffron. Watching the stuff hand-dried over a woodfire, steaming and sweet, then packaged up ready to enrich a thousand risottos, gild gallons of seafood soups and flavour countless buns.

Saffron – the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus – is the most expensive spice in the world. Worth literally more than its weight in gold. Why? Because its production is so labour-intensive. You can’t harvest those fiddly flowers by machine nor trick out their delicate red threads with anything but the human hand. It takes about 100,000 flowers (and 500 hours of labour) to yield one kilo of saffron. Thankfully, saffron is potent stuff, and a little goes a long way. A single gram is enough to spice and colour twelve portions of golden risotto milanese.

Naturally these demanding little flowers won’t grow just anywhere. Saffron crocuses find their ideal terroir only in a dozen small areas across Europe, the Middle East and southern Asia. Italy manages to bag three such areas: on Sardinia, in Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia, and up on the Navelli Plain in Abruzzo. It is this last saffron-growing area that makes the gourmet’s heart skip a beat. Navelli saffron, more often called L’Aquila saffron, is generally agreed to be the very best in the world. Its stigmas are longer, its aroma stronger and its colour deeper than any other.



On the remote fertile plainin Abruzzo overlooked on one side by the handsome medieval village of Navelli and on the other by Abruzzo’s high mountains – celestial and snow-capped in the clear autumn light. Just eight hectares of land yield all the saffron. Harvesting takes place at dawn, while the crocus petals are still tightly closed – making the flowers easier to pinch from the ground in a single tweak of finger and thumb, and keeping a maximum of fragrance inside. Unopened by the sunshine of the advancing day, the crocuses stand like tight purple bullets in the spiky green leaves, their fat red stigmas peeping out the top like tiny flags.





Harvesting lasts about fifteen days. Harvesters pick every flower that sprouts up on a given morning, then wait for the others that come up the next day, and so on. The bulbs, planted in August and very carefully tended afterwards, flower only when the weather conditions are exactly right.

Saffron flowers are robust little things, with no hint of deformity. They thrust up from the soil with straight needle-leaves and bulbous, top-heavy heads crowned with that cocky red cap, or splaying their crimson wares unabashed between open petals. These flowers have attitude.

It is immensely fiddly work – splitting thick petals with fingernails and tweaking out the scarlet filaments within – but it’s also rather soothing, especially to the backdrop of happy chatter. The mass of purple flowers gets smaller and the piles of moist saffron grow larger.

The final stage of the process – carefully drying all the raw saffron over the fire. One red load after another is sprinkled onto the fire in a tostatura – an eight-inch circle of fine mesh stretched in a wooden frame – then holds each load over the glowing orange logs of the fire for ten minutes, gently moving the saffron around to dry it evenly. The red threads steam slightly as their moisture evaporates, and they grow darker in colour. Each dried load gets tipped into a plastic jar, which grows fuller and fuller over the next hour. And then we weigh it all. We’ve made 75 grams of top-quality saffron tonight, which will sell for about A$23 per gram.

You won’t get rich making saffron. It’s just too labour-intensive for that. But there is the satisfaction of producing a legendary, world-class foodstuff, and in using the same quality-conscious methods that your ancestors did. The Papaoli family, for example, have been growing Navelli saffron for more than 200 years. There is enough money in saffron to have shaped the local area, however – especially during the Middle Ages when European demand for the spice was intense. Abruzzo’s regional capital L’Aquila, about thirty miles north of little Navelli, was in some measure built on saffron wealth. In medieval times the city was a key stop on trade routes between Florence and Naples, and saffron was as important to L’Aquila’s traders as wool or silk. Now as then, the vast majority of Abruzzo’s saffron is ultimately whisked away from the region – being exported to other parts of Italy or to other countries. From its humble muddy fields, Abruzzo’s gourmet gold has conquered the world.

History of Saffron
Saffron has been revered by many of history’s greatest civilizations. To the ancient Arabic speakers who christened it, it was “zafaran” – possibly originally meaning ”the hair of angels”. To Buddhists and Hindus the sacred spice is still the traditional dye for monks’ robes. The ancient Egyptians reverentially used saffron in medicines and perfumes. Cleopatra scented herself with it. Minoan women on Crete coloured their lips and nipples with it. Hippocrates was convinced of saffron’s metdicinal powers, and the ancient Greeks used it to treat gastric ills, sleeplessness and hangovers. Saffron was “vegetable gold” to the Romans, who bathed in it, added it to wine, and perfumed theatres with it. In the Middle Ages saffron was used to treat colds, epilepsy and depression, as well as to colour illuminated manuscripts. For 4,000 years across every country acquainted with it, saffron has always held its position as the most expensive spice.


Saffron – A Noble HealthTonic
Saffron is packed with powerful antioxidants – those anti-ageing and cancer-preventing substances that make fruit and vegetables so good for us. Saffron’s chief chemical goodies go by the pretty names safranal, crocetin and crocin – each of which aims to keep you healthy in one way or another. Research on mice has proven the ability of saffron to hinder the formation of tumours and to extend the life of cancerous animals. Other studies suggest that saffron may have the ability to improve memory function, lower cholesterol, and even to combat depression. The antioxidant carotenes that make saffron such a boon to health also make the spice a potent colourant, of course. Deep yellow risottos, fish soups and cakes are only half the story. In Asia, saffron is widely used as a luxury fabric dye. Wedding robes, monks’ habits, priests’ clothing – noble outfits require a noble spice.


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