The Saffron Trail

Precious Saffron

Yellow as Saffron

One of the least known spices

We were in Abruzzo, the southern part of the region between Apulia and Campania regions. Our itinerary was completely open; we just wanted to explore Abruzzo, a region we didn’t know much about. We wanted to see for ourselves an area that we knew offered everything a modern tourist desires: excellent cuisine, great wines, art, history and uncrowded places. We discovered small and colorful villages sitting like crowns on top of the surrounding hills and prices that were reasonable everywhere we went. The altitude in Abruzzo helped us escape the heat that we had experienced on the first leg of our Italian journey further north in Umbria.

Since we weren’t tied to an itinerary, when we saw the sign NAVELLI we made a quick decision to stop. Navelli has been known since medieval times for its production of Saffron. In no time at all we were parked in a deserted “piazza.”

We grabbed our cameras and started walking in the narrow streets of a semi-ghost town. Navelli had its heyday during the Renaissance when saffron was used as paint pigment by all the artists of the time before it became a delicious highly-rated gourmet spice.

There weren’t many people around, the only man we met there suggested that we go to Civitaretenga, another village only 2 miles from Navelli to learn more about the production of saffron. Civitaretenga is home to the largest saffron producer in Italy; it’s actually a cooperative. Navelli is almost totally abandoned due to the earthquake in L’Aquila. Damage to the houses is evident and few can safely live there until the restoration work is completed. See our previous blog ONCE A FAIRY-TALE LIKE CITY…

In Civitaretenga we went searching for the Saffron Coop. At the large green house, we were met by the director of the business, who entertained us by offering us a drink of a liqueur made with saffron. Delicious, but 43 proof at eleven in the morning on an empty stomach was a jolt!

Known since the Middle Ages, saffron is used in medicine, dyes, and perfumes. It grows in several countries, India, Morocco, Spain, Greece and Italy. It is highly labor intensive to produce, taking more than 4,000 flowers to produce one ounce of powder that sells for about $300. Discerning chefs prefer to use the stigmas, which are also called threads.

The saffron crocus bulbs are planted in August. Flowering occurs in October and the harvest happens at dawn when the bulb is closed. All of the labor is done by hand. The threads are immediately dried over a fire of neutral wood like almond or oak that doesn’t impart its flavor to the finished product.

Navelli and Civitaretenga had strong ties with Florence and the Medici family by marriage (it will be the subject of another blog) and through business contacts. During the Republic of Florence under the Medici rulers, the wool guild was the strongest economic enterprise. Florentine merchants frequently traveled to Navelli to buy raw material from the shepherds of Abruzzo. Through these contacts they learned about saffron and started trading it as well. They succeeded in importing the cultivation of saffron to Tuscany and were able to produce a good product in and around San Gimignano. Lately the practice has been resurrected in the city of towers and saffron is produced there with moderate results. However, it is commonly understood that to get a good flower with great flavor the best soil and conditions are located at about 2900ft of altitude which defines the area in Abruzzo.

While there we had a lunch of home made Fettuccine with saffron, a taste that still lingers on our palate.

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