Your body doesn’t soon forget harvesting saffron. For days your fingers are deeply purple-stained from plucking soft, dawn-damp crocuses. Your skin smells all over of saffron’s honey-sweetness as surely as if you’d been bathing in the stuff. Your back aches from stooping in the fields filling tiny baskets. And as for hobbling in your thickly mud-encrusted shoes, well, best just to give up and throw them away.
Your mind doesn’t easily let go of harvest images either. Early-morning light shimmering across dewy lines of plants striping chocolate soil. Hunched figures in the mist, patiently picking. Then later, sitting with village matriarchs round a kitchen table piled high with plump flowers, teasing the vivid red stigmas out from between petals and amassing small piles of raw saffron. Watching the stuff hand-dried over a woodfire, steaming and sweet, then packaged up ready to enrich a thousand risottos, gild gallons of seafood soup and flavour countless buns.
Saffron – the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus – is the most expensive spice in the world. Worth literally more than its weight in gold. Why? Because its production is so labour-intensive. You can’t harvest those fiddly flowers by machine nor trick out their delicate red threads with anything but the human hand. It takes about 100,000 flowers (and 500 hours of labour) to yield one kilo of saffron. Thankfully, saffron is potent stuff, and a little goes a long way. A single gram is enough to spice and colour twelve portions of golden risotto milanese.
Naturally these demanding little flowers won’t grow just anywhere. Saffron crocuses find their ideal terroir only in a dozen small areas across Europe, the Middle East and southern Asia. Italy manages to bag three such areas: on Sardinia, in Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia, and up on the Navelli Plain in Abruzzo. It is this last saffron-growing area that makes the gourmet’s heart skip a beat. Navelli saffron, more often called L’Aquila saffron, is generally agreed to be the very best in the world. Its stigmas are longer, its aroma stronger and its colour deeper than any other.
So it was in wild, majestic Abruzzo that I joined a saffron harvest, on the remote fertile plain overlooked on one side by the handsome medieval village of Navelli and on the other by Abruzzo’s high mountains – celestial and snow-capped in the clear autumn light. Just eight hectares of land yield all the saffron. Harvesting takes place at dawn, while the crocus petals are still tightly closed – making the flowers easier to pinch from the ground in a single tweak of finger and thumb, and keeping a maximum of fragrance inside. Unopened by the sunshine of the advancing day, the crocuses stand like tight purple bullets in the spiky green leaves, their fat red stigmas peeping out the top like tiny flags.
With the petals shut-up like this, saffron fields are not a mass of purple like lavender fields, as I had hoped and imagined. When I arrive, there are about ten people out on the dreamily sunlit lines of green – good-hearted farming types, who don’t mind me clumping about in the clotty mud taking photos of them and their dewy crop of flowers. I’m told that only three main families work these fields, and they all help each other. One elderly chap is working alone in a corner field, and when our group finishes picking their patch they go over to help him until his field is empty. They’re not in competition round here, but in solidarity – even though each farmer will only profit from the saffron grown in his or her own field.
Harvesting lasts about fifteen days. Harvesters pick every flower that sprouts up on a given morning, then wait for the others that come up the next day, and so on. The bulbs, planted in August and very carefully tended afterwards, flower only when the weather conditions are exactly right. Twice my trip here was delayed because unusually cold weather meant nothing was sprouting. Then a sudden spate of warmth brought the flowers out in such profusion that there were concerns I might not be able to get here fast enough.
The crop this year is especially good, I’m told. Lots of flowers, and particularly fat stigmas. A harvesting woman splits a couple of flowers open to show me the long, flared threads inside, which lollop out like the gangly legs of a teenager. They seem too big for the flower, and make it look genetically engineered – like one of those chickens cruelly bred only for its breast-meat, unable even to stand because its chest is so heavy. But these flowers are robust little things, with no hint of deformity. They thrust up from the soil with straight needle-leaves and bulbous, top-heavy heads crowned with that cocky red cap, or splaying their crimson wares unabashed between open petals. These flowers have attitude.
By 9am it’s all over, the day’s every crocus picked. Some of the harvesters have wisely brought a change of shoes, but mine are irredeemably mud-caked and it’s with uneven gait that I make it to the café in the quiet heart of the village. Shedding clumps of sod onto the shiny floor (which I blushingly pick up and throw outside), I down a macchiato and watch the locals trickling in. A pair of agricultural workers clown guilelessly for everyone in the room. An octogenarian stands with an equally aged friend, clutching a glass of grappa which he knocks back in one gulp – a daily ritual, meeting with a small round of applause. A beautiful young woman stands with her cappuccino and smiles shyly at me, respectfully wishing a stranger welcome. Local people of every age pop in to chat to everyone for five minutes and leave again. In Navelli as everywhere, the Italians are masters of community.
I spend the day exploring the local countryside, and then in the late afternoon I climb Navelli’s quiet sloping streets to the house of a kind, soft-spoken woman named Albina. Her son, Alfonso Papaoli, is easily the fastest crocus-picker I’ve ever seen, and his name features on many packets of local saffron sold to the salivating wider world. Albina’s stout kitchen table is awash with thousands of purple flowers. All the day’s pickings spread out to dry. The whole room smells sweetly of saffron. Around the table, cosy in the heat of the woodfire, sit ten local women – each with a paper towel at their side and an empty basket by their feet. I’m ushered into the sisterhood and shown what to do.
For three hours we sit and tease the precious red stigmas out from amongst the petals – plucking out the crocuses’ female reproductive organs and steadily amassing them into little crimson piles on our paper towels. The empty flowers we drop into the baskets on the floor. It is immensely fiddly work – splitting thick petals with fingernails and tweaking out the scarlet filaments within – but it’s also rather soothing, especially to the backdrop of happy chatter. Slowly the daylight fails outside, and the moon floats up over the village. The mass of purple flowers gets smaller and the piles of moist saffron grow larger. Then at last, incredibly, someone snatches up the one remaining flower left on the table, and we’ve done the lot.
As if on cue, Alfonso wanders in. He affably surveys our handiwork, and sets about the final stage of the process – carefully drying all the raw saffron over the fire. He sprinkles one red load after another onto a tostatura – an eight-inch circle of fine mesh stretched in a wooden frame – then holds each load over the glowing orange logs of the fire for ten minutes, gently moving the saffron around to dry it evenly. The red threads steam slightly as their moisture evaporates, and they grow darker in colour. Each dried load gets tipped into a plastic jar, which grows fuller and fuller over the next hour. And then we weigh it all. We’ve made 75 grams of top-quality saffron tonight, which will sell for about €16 per gram.
You won’t get rich making saffron. It’s just too labour-intensive for that. But there is the satisfaction of producing a legendary, world-class foodstuff, and in using the same quality-conscious methods that your ancestors did. The Papaoli family, for example, have been growing Navelli saffron for more than 200 years. There is enough money in saffron to have shaped the local area, however – especially during the Middle Ages when European demand for the spice was intense. Abruzzo’s regional capital L’Aquila, about thirty miles north of little Navelli, was in some measure built on saffron wealth. In medieval times the city was a key stop on trade routes between Florence and Naples, and saffron was as important to L’Aquila’s traders as wool or silk. Now as then, the vast majority of Abruzzo’s saffron is ultimately whisked away from the region – being exported to other parts of Italy or to other countries. From its humble muddy fields, Abruzzo’s gourmet gold has conquered the world.
FLOWER OF AGES
Saffron has been revered by many of history’s greatest civilizations. To the ancient Arabic speakers who christened it, it was ‘zafaran’ – possibly originally meaning ‘the hair of angels’. To Buddhists and Hindus the sacred spice is still the traditional dye for monks’ robes. The ancient Egyptians reverentially used saffron in medicines and perfumes. Cleopatra scented herself with it. Minoan women on Crete coloured their lips and nipples with it. Hippocrates was convinced of saffron’s medicinal powers, and the ancient Greeks used it to treat gastric ills, sleeplessness and hangovers. Saffron was ‘vegetable gold’ to the Romans, who bathed in it, added it to wine, and perfumed theatres with it. In the Middle Ages saffron was used to treat colds, epilepsy and depression, as well as to colour illuminated manuscripts. For 4,000 years across every country acquainted with it, saffron has always held its position as the most expensive spice.
SPICE OF LIFE
Saffron is packed with powerful antioxidants – those anti-ageing and cancer-preventing substances that make fruit and vegetables so good for us. Saffron’s chief chemical goodies go by the pretty names safranal, crocetin and crocin – each of which aims to keep you healthy in one way or another. Research on mice has proven the ability of saffron to hinder the formation of tumours and to extend the life of cancerous animals. Other studies suggest that saffron may have the ability to improve memory function, lower cholesterol, and even to combat depression. The antioxidant carotenes that make saffron such a boon to health also make the spice a potent colourant, of course. Deep yellow risottos, fish soups and cakes are only half the story. In Asia, saffron is widely used as a luxury fabric dye. Wedding robes, monks’ habits, priests’ clothing – noble outfits require a noble spice.
Looking for L’Aquila saffron?
Visit www.papaolizafferano.com or www.peltuinum.it