The Crocus Sativus Linneo is a famous, ancient plant. Originally from Asia, saffron was brought to Tunisia through the trade route and then to Spain. And it finally arrived in Italy thanks to a Dominican monk from the Santucci family, originally the Navelli family, who loved botany and agriculture. After attending a council meeting in Toledo, the monk returned to Italy and began cultivating saffron back at home. Italy proved to be an ideal habitat for saffron crocus and the dried saffron stigmas became popular among the noble families. More people began growing saffron and it became a great product for barter for all of the most important spice markets at the time, like Venice.
Together with sheepherding and wool production, saffron became an important source of wealth for the economy of Abruzzo for various centuries. Thanks to saffron production, L’Aquilia became and beautiful and rich little city, able to support a university and build monuments, basilicas, hospitals, etc. And thanks to the wealth of the local saffron producers, the city was able to face the treat of domination by outsiders. In the 20th century, the first cooperative of saffron producers was established in order to protect this important product from being undervalued by wholesalers.
The saffron crocus is grown in some communities in the province of L’Aquilia at altitudes between 1,148 and 3,280 ft above sea level. The plant that saffron comes from should be considered and vegetal fossil because it has maintained its genetic composition due to the fact that it can only spread by cloning. New plants are born out of bulbs separated from the original. Actually, the plant is sterile and does not produce seeds. Due to the fact that the plants maintain their genetic makeup and have been cultivated for the same way for centuries, any changes in the biology of the plant have to come exclusively from the growing conditions and microclimate.
The new fields of saffron crocus are designed to allow for sloughing and the use of organic manure. After the fields have been leveled and furrows have been dug 8 to 10 in apart during the second half of August, new bulbs taken from the plants of the previous year and planted.
The cultivation guidelines do not allow for the use of chemical herbicides and the fields can only be watered if they are really dry. The only interventions allowed are earthing up and hoeing the ground. The plants flower only during the month of October. During those 20 days, the flowers are picked by hand during the early hours of the morning when the flowers are not open yet.
The flowers are taken to a lab where the stigmas are separated from the petals. The stigma are place on placed on racks and left to dry out over a wood fire. The racks are moved from time to time to get the perfect results.
By drying the stigma, they keep their bright color and great aroma. They can be kept whole or ground into a powder and preserved in cloth in a dry, dark place. According to tradition, saffron is made completely by hand and this certainly adds to its cost. When used in cooking, saffron gives many dishes a gold color and was once considered a status symbol.
One of most famous culinary uses for saffron is in risotto, however it can also be used with meats, desserts and in liquor. Saffron powder can be added at the end of cooking or the fibers can be reconstituted in water or broth before use.