Story of Saffron Production in Abruzzo

09 September 2010 Published in Abruzzo Food
Freshly harvested saffron Freshly harvested saffron image Fototeca ENIT

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Obtained from the dried and powdered stem of the 'croccus sativus' which grows on the Navelli Plain in the province of L'Aquila, saffron is considered by many to be the single most representative symbol of the traditional products of Abruzzo. An essential ingredient in Risotto al Milanese (and paiella in Spain for that matter) the spice also crops up in many other dishes across Italy.

For example, the fish soup found in Le Marche, south of the Monte Conero, contains saffron for its red coloring in place of the more traditional tomato. This coloring property is also widely appreciated in the production of cakes and liqueurs and for centuries by painters in the preparation of dyes. Its additional curative powers have long been known to help digestion, rheumatism and colds.

Origins of Saffron in Abruzzo

How a flower of Middle Eastern origin found a home in this unfashionable corner of Italy can be attributed to a priest by the name of Santucci who introduced it to his native home 450 years ago. Following his return from Spain at the height of the Inquisition, his familiarity with Arab-Andalusian tradition convinced him that the cultivation of the plant was possible in the plains of Abruzzo, and so it proved.

Nevertheless, even today the harvesting of saffron is hard and fastidious work with great skill needed to handle the stems without damaging the product inside or allowing contamination from other parts of the plant. The area of cultivation in the region is strictly limited to 8 hectares of land. A sad reduction from the 430 hectares cultivated at the turn of the last century.

Hand picking saffron in Abruzzo

Today's Saffron Production

Together with the labor intensiveness of the production and the care and patience involved in gathering and drying the flower, the cost of Abruzzese saffron is high relative to its competitors from the Middle East and Iran. Yet all are agreed it possesses superior aromatic qualities and remains the preferred choice in gourmet cooking. It is so good that the saffron from the area is practically all exported.

Anyone interested in buying the end product should note that although sachets of saffron powder can be purchased, the real thing should only be bought as the characteristic dried fine stems. The saffron is grown in an area comprising the comune of Navelli, Civitaretenga, Camporciano, San Pio delle Camere and Prata D'Ansidonia.

Growers Feel the Squeeze to Sell a Pinch of Saffron - NY Times

Saffron Harvest

In late October the Altopiano di Navelli cooperative, a group of small saffon producers who are intent on protecting their craft, begin to harvest the purple Crocus sativus flowers. Each grower produces between 100 grams and six kilograms of saffron each year, but this small amount still represents a significant harvest in Italy. This is testimony to the value of the neon-yellow spice whose value is calculated not in tons but in grams and, at the maximum, in kilograms. Visitors can purchase several products made with the spice, including oils, sweet almonds, and Zaff99 (a liquor made from saffron).

Typically, such an occasion would be mean a harvest festival, but such is the chill air at this time of year on the high plain, the local product is celebrated in August. The third weekend of August to be precise when the 'Sagra dei Ceci and Zafferano' forms part of a 'Medieval Weekend'. Highlight of the two days is a donkey palio described as a burlesque imitation of the Palio of Siena.    

Dan Hostetler adds

"This is the place in which the spice was first cultivated in Italy. According to local legend, the town's history with saffron began with a Dominican monk named Santucci. Father Santucci, a native of navelli, moved to Spain to serve on the court of the Spanish Inquisition. While abroad, he learned to appreciate and savor many typical Iberian dishes made with saffron. He was drawn to the spice's strong aroma, as well as its supposed healing powers and aphrodisiac qualities. Father Santucci then decided to try cultivating the spice when he returned to his hometown, eventually creating an enterprise that produced a high-quality saffron which became well-known throughout Europe". 

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