Local foodSaffron from L'Aquila D.O.P.
Italy is ranked as one of the most famous saffron producers in the world
Saffron, in every sense of it, (Crocus sativus Linnaeus) is the most expensive spice in the world. It makes the dishes sumptuous and also adds fragrance, giving it a royal appearance. It lends itself to the preparation of many gourmet dishes.
Saffron, together with other ingredients, is used by starred chefs to promote typical Italian dishes. The scents and flavour of saffron are also as a result of the synergistic action of three components of the spice; picrocrocine, crocine and safranale.
We would like to say thank you to Massimiliano D’Innocenzo, Chairman of the Consortium for the protection of Zafferano dell’Aquila DOP, and Giada Paolucci for providing us useful information and superb images you will find in this article.
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The history of the Italian saffron of L’Aquila D.O.P and its origins
Its origins come from far away. Looking into it, we can attribute it to the Greek mythology which tells us that the birth of saffron, derives from the love of a young man named Crocus, who fell in love with the nymph Smilace. Unfortunately, the nymph was Hermes’ favorite, and he took revenge on Crocus, transforming him into the saffron flower. Saffron is mentioned by Homer, Virgil, and Ovid also spoke of it in the metamorphoses.
Saffron was grown in Cilicia, Barbaria and Styria. It was used to colour the veils of brides, and it was used as perfumers for temples. From Asia, the Saffron cultivation also reached Tunisia and Spain.
How was Italian saffron born? How did it arrive in Italy?
Saffron arrived in Italy through a Dominican monk, father Santucci from the Santucci’s family in Navelli (Italy). The monk fell in love with this spice in Toledo, in 1230, and he thought it was perfect for his lands in Navelli. Legend tells us that the monk secretly brought three bulbs to Navelli, hoping that they could bear good fruit here. To carry out his project, he made corrections to Spanish cultivation practices, trying to adapt them to the climate and soil of the area, developing the annual cycle culture for the first time.
In fact, Italian saffron quickly came to life in the territory of L’Aquila. The oldest document testifying to the cultivation and trade of the spice, which became famous as Saffron from L’Aquila, is a diploma from King Roberto of Anjou, which was documented in 1317.
Today, the cultivation of saffron is carried out only by few farmers. It is estimated that the average annual production for the entire Navelli plain is around 40 kg.
The saffron plant
The name saffron derives from the Arabic word ‘Zaafran’. The plant has the name Crocus Sativus Linnaeus, and it is usually 12 to 15 cm high. The flower has a really pretty bell-shaped structure. The bulbs reproduce after a year, and each bulb can create two bulbs.
With long leaves, saffron is a clearly recognizable and very beautiful plant. When harvested, the leaves are always about 10 to 40 cm long. Inside the flowers, there are the stigmas, and there are always 3 red ones with a very good smell. Once dried, the stigmas form saffron in threads.
The stamens instead are yellow, which are divided by the stigmas and discarded. In ancient times, these were used to colour fabrics.
The cultivation of Saffron from L’Aquila D.O.P.
When the cultivation of saffron is being carried out in Italy, farmers plant the bulbs at a distance of 2-3 centimetres, and at a depth of 10-15 centimetres, a technique that ensures them having the most abundant harvest of flowers and child bulbs.
For the cultivation of saffron, we need an explicit summer and winter climatology, with temperatures ranging from no more than 35°C or 40°C in summer to around -15°C or -20°C in winter. This is why saffron can be grown in dry, moderate and continental climate types, but not in tropical or polar climate types.
How is saffron grown and harvested?
When planting saffron, it is necessary to choose a plot of virgin land.
Before sowing, it is advisable to plow the soil at a depth of 20 to 45 centimetres. As for the unearthing in Italy, it is done between June and July. Once the saffron leaves turn brown and wilt, the bulbs are dormant and ready to be unearthed. Around mid-October, the saffron flowers begin to bloom, and this flowering lasts for about three weeks.
How the drying of saffron is done?
The drying consists of placing the flower’s stigmas on a sieve, placed on the wood embers, until the saffron has reached its final firmness. Throughout the saffron processing cycle, drying is certainly the most deciding phase; it is not by chance that it is only the most experienced and skilful person among the saffron farmers who takes care of this work, which is of great responsibility.
Approximately 200,000 flowers are needed to obtain a kilo of dried precious saffron, therefore, farmers must pay close attention to the drying process. If the stigmas remain on the fire for too long, it is likely that they will burn out quickly. In other words, if they don’t dry well, they’ll rot in a few days. For these reasons, the drying must be carried out on the day of collection.
The saffron farmers of L’Aquila D.O.P.
The producers are entered in lists, and they are managed by the body in charge of checking on the cadastral parcels where saffron is grown.
L’Aquila’s saffron has certain requirements, such as the label, the origin, the safety, and the authenticity of the food. Since 1971, there have been about 46 producers of Italian saffron from the Navelli plateau.
The idea was to incorporate the “Altopiano di Navelli” Cooperative with the idea of growing the best saffron in the world, and thanks to the idea of Silvio Salvatore Sarra.
Curiosity about the saffron of L’Aquila D.O.P.
In 1989, a commission of experts worldwide gave him the primacy in the world, followed in 1991 by a further recognition for the Cooperative with the “Golden Atom.”
The long list of awards then reached its peak in 2005, when the European Union recognized our PDO saffron, the protected designation of origin, for the product grown in the 13 municipalities of L’Aquila and recognized by the Ministry of Policies Agricole.
Recipe with Italian saffron
The saffron risotto from L’Aquila D.O.P.
For 5 people
Finely chop the onion and let it dry in a saucepan over a very low heat for 5 minutes, then add 30 grams of butter. Add the rice and toast it on high heat for a minute, then start stirring. (5 glasses of rice).
Pour the white wine in and evaporate. Pour the boiling broth a little at a time, and keep stirring. Cook the rice for about 16/20 minutes, according to the chosen rice. Halfway through cooking, add the Italian saffron that you previously diluted in water (even for 12 hours). Add some Parmesan and mix again. Leave it to rest for a few minutes and serve.
Places to visit to know Italian saffron: L’Aquila what to see in one day
Telling the story of a magnificent spice like saffron is a great pleasure for not only the Italian territory, but also for the palate.
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