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Saffron pistils: a treasure from Tuscany
Saffron comes from the pistils of Crocus Sativus flower of the Iridaceae family. It is of the most expensive spices in the world, because, among other reasons, it takes more or less 200 flowers to obtain only one gram of saffron pistils. That’s how it got its nickname red gold, because of its appearance and its value.
The story of red gold
Saffron probably is the oldest spice that we still use today. It originated a long time ago in a place far away. It allegedly comes from India or maybe from Asia Minor. In Solomon’s Song of Songs, saffron is described as one of the most precious plants and it is even mentioned in Ebers’ Egyptian papyrus, a catalogue of medical and magical prescriptions. In the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of the soldier Crocus and the nymph Silax who loved each other so much that they ended up provoking the wrath of the gods, who finally turned them both into plants. He turned into a Crocus Sativus with a red heart as a symbol of their love. Homer mentions in the Iliad that the women of Troy used saffron to scent temples.
During the Greek-Roman era, saffron started to be marketed throughout the Mediterranean basin. Between the 7th and 8th century, production shifted to Spain, once occupied by Arab conquerors. In 1347, plague struck Europe. Many saffron farmers died right when the idea that saffron could fight the disease started going around. A war ensued - the Saffron war to be exact -, when a 360kg load of saffron was taken away from merchants.
Saffron value skyrocketed and in the following centuries, pirates would prefer to attack a ship loaded with saffron rather than a ship loaded with gold.
As far as saffron cultivation in Italy is concerned, the story goes that an Inquisition monk called Domenico Santucci managed to bring some Crocus bulbs to Navelli in the Abruzzi region, which set off production. We suspect this story to be fake, given the fact that it takes at least one ton of bulbs to obtain one kilo of saffron, and exporting saffron bulbs was forbidden according to Spain’s protectionist laws.
We will never know what went down exactly; saffron probably gained a foothold in Italy thanks to a series of fortunate events: the particularly suitable climate, our farmers’ skills, the circulation of goods and transportation improvement. In any case, Italian saffron is an excellent product which is now mainly cultivated in Sardinia, Abruzzi and Tuscany.
Where to find high-quality saffron?
In the supermarket we usually find saffron powder in sachets. Is that ok? No, not at all. Only saffron pistils are pure: pistils -or saffron threads - are a part of the flower, which was not processed in any way. It was only picked and dried out. The end.
Powdered saffron could contain something else. You need to keep in mind that saffron is one of the most counterfeited spices and is often mixed with safflower, turmeric or even with artificial substances. Saffron is expensive and rightly so, given the fact that it takes around 200 flowers and a lot of labour to make one gram of saffron.
Cheap saffron does not exist and if you find it, it is not what it says it is. Companies making saffron are aware of this; their work should be protected and awarded, since it is not an easy job at all.
Tuscan saffron has always been a local delicacy. This region is crossed by the ancient Francigena pilgrim route which has always been a major trade route. Saffron from San Gimignano obtained the PDO label in 2005, boosting local cultivation and an ever more competitive production.
A small farm located in Arezzo, specialised in the cultivation and production of prime-quality Tuscan saffron, has reached a top quality level. Zeta Zafferano adopts a fully natural and traditional approach. Only natural fertilisers are used in the soil and saffron is picked by hand. The drying step is closely monitored, in order to obtain an exceptional product which can keep its aroma and sensory properties unaltered.
Cultivation and harvest
Saffron flower emerges from a bulb or corm which is divided into three buds where leaves, flowers and cormlets sprout. At the end of October, the plant opens and long and thin leaves, as well as beautiful vivid purple flowers, sprout. Each flower contains three yellow stamens and three red stigmas, which are very precious.
The harvest must be carried out very carefully only at the crack of dawn, when flowers haven’t opened yet and stamens can be picked without being ruined.
During harvest time, the field is checked every day and flowers are picked, when they are ready. It takes an expert eye to know when the time is right. Stamens must be picked whole and then dried out. It may seem easy, but it’s not. It is up to the manufacturer to decide for how long the stamen should dry; the stamen should be elastic and quite dehydrated and should not undergo fermentation. Threads are then packed in jars and then they are ready to go.
Recipes with saffron
It is hard to describe the flavour of saffron, since it is difficult to find a similar flavour. Saying that saffron has a pleasant aroma would be understating the intensity and complexity of its one-of-a-kind flavour. First of all, saffron does not cover or alter the flavour of dishes, but rather complements it. It is slightly bitter and has a pungent smell; it can impart an intense, yellow colour to any dish. The adjective that best describes saffron taste would be “refined”. It pairs well with savoury and sweet dishes alike. Let’s see some example.
First of all, risotto alla Milanese (saffron risotto): soft, velvety and very beautiful. Saffron can also be added to rice to make the Sicilian arancine recipe and it also pairs well with mushrooms. It can be used to add colour and flavour to fresh pasta and bread dough. It is ideal to bake scented cakes and delicious and aromatic spoon desserts.
Saffron threads can turn any dish into a memorable feast and they truly make a difference. Yes, saffron is expensive, but it’s definitely worth the money.