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Magical, elegant, enticing, golden: the king of spices, saffron

Taste / -

 
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Flowers of saffron
© Owais Zargar/Demotix/Corbis
Plantation of saffron
Kashmiri villagers pick saffron flowers
© Javed Dar/Xinhua Press/Corbis
Kashmir Saffron harvest
© Altaf Qadri/epa/Corbis
Kashmir Saffron harvest
© Altaf Qadri/epa/Corbis
Kashmir Saffron Festival
© Owais Zargar/Demotix/Corbis
Processing saffron flowers
Saffron, spice
Saffron, spice
Saffron, spice

Saffron is extracted from a flower that is planted in the spring and that blossoms in the fields in October. The petals have a beautiful color that ranges from pale lilac to purple. The cultivation, harvesting and processing are done entirely manually, without any form of mechanization.

The golden powder extracted from the crocus sativus has, over the millennia, always been considered valuable, beneficial, useful and enticing – so much so that it has a place in the history of civilization and in the culinary traditions of many different peoples. 
 
The history of saffron is so ancient that it precedes the Bible. In history, its uses have been many. Considered an aphrodisiac by the Persians and in Greek mythology, the ancient Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans would use it in ointments and perfumes. The Phoenicians traded it by the weight of gold, and an ancient scribe instructed that it be dissolved with tin to "spread it with a brush on points to be gilded." It has always been used, like purple, as a dye for clothes.

History of cultivation
Today it is of particular interest to us as precious and refined cooking ingredient, fundamental for staples dishes of Mediterranean culinary tradition such as paella in Spain, bouillabaisse in Provence and Marseilles, and Milan’s yellow risotto (made with saffron) alla milanese. The major producers of this precious spice are Iran, Spain, Kashmir, Morocco and Greece. It began being planted successfully in several Chinese provinces including Henan, Jiangsu, Hunan, Shanghai and Tibet. In Italy, according to legend, it came to be cultivated by a Dominican friar, Father Santucci, who between 1216 and 1230 was in Toledo where he sat on the tribunal of the Inquisition, and that he brought one of these plants back from Spain to his native land, the Navelli plain in Abruzzo, near L'Aquila. From the thirteenth century the cultivation of its flowers spread to other parts of Italy and today, major productions are not only in Abruzzo, but also in Tuscany, Sardinia, Sicily, Umbria and the Marches.
 
Saffron production and organoleptic peculiarity
It is extracted from a flower (crocus sativus bulb-tuber, of the Iridaceae family) which, when planted in the spring, blooms in the fields in October. Its petals have a beautiful color ranging from pale lilac to violet purple. Within its corolla, on the top of a white stem, are three bright red filaments or stigmas. From these we obtain that delightful powder that brings a tinge of yellow to all our prepared dishes. In fact, these three filaments can be used for cooking even when not reduced to dust, but they do not have the same degree of sharpening power.
By sharpening power we are speaking of its taste and aroma. Its other features that add to the quality of this golden ingredient are its coloring power, or its capacity to provide color; and its odorous power, its degree of fragrance.
 
The cultivation, collection and processing of saffron is made entirely by hand, in the absence of any type of mechanization. Depending on the climate and the geographical region, harvesting takes place between September and November. Flowers are picked one by one in the early hours of the morning, when they are closed. Then there is another manual labor, which is highly delicate, so as not to ruin the filaments, thin and lightweight: detach them from the inside of the flower. The stigmas are then left to dry either in the shade, or in a small oven or brazier; during this process they lose about four-fifths of their weight. To produce one pound you need to collect about 150 thousand flowers, and it takes about 500 hours of work. That is, a packet of saffron pistils 60, 20 flowers.
 
Saffron, health and wellbeing
Saffron is rich in antioxidants, precious against cellular aging, which moreover show a good thermal resistance (when used in cooking its efficacy remains intact). Indeed it is its active properties that give it its yellow hue: crocetin, crocin, picrocrocin, of the carotenoid family, commonly found in all vegetal foods (fruits and vegetables), but never as highly concentrated as in saffron. It has a thousand times more carotenoids than carrot, one of the plants that has the most (about 8% by weight, compared with 0.008%). And they are also very powerful: the amount of this saffron in a dish of risotto or pasta (50 mg) removes twice as many radicals as those deleted by vitamin C and six times more than those eliminated by vitamin E. A pinch of health, of history and of taste: it is indeed like gold, but not simply for its color.
 

Ten Plants that Attract Butterflies

Sustainability / -

Farfalle

While the great Belgian writer, Maurice Maeterlinck defined butterflies as the “the daughters of the sun”, and others have referred to them as “pearls of the air”, or “flying jewels”, they do not feed on spiritual matters but need material food like the rest of us. So what do butterflies eat? And what are the most nutritious foods for butterflies?

Although the majority of butterflies are, of course, vegetarian, their needs change according to their life-cycle. So let’s have a quick look at that. They go from the egg, through the larva or caterpillar, through the pupa and the chrysalis to the adult stage. While they are immobile in the egg and chrysalis stages, food sources are inbuilt. During the intermediate period, as caterpillars, they need to feed and, indeed, need to feed a lot, spending the most part of the day eating, growing apace. From leaving the egg to entering the chrysalis stage, our potential butterfly increases its volume no less than one thousand-fold.
 
While caterpillars only eat leaves, butterflies’ food preferences vary.
Being the “daughters of the sun”, as the man said, they feed from what we might call the “food of the gods”, or nectar. This difference in diet has evolved to eliminate competition and use resources efficiently: while the caterpillars go for one part of the plant, their adult selves prefer another.
 
Shifting now from theory to practice, let’s take a look at the plants that butterflies love to feed from, starting when they are at the caterpillar stage.
 
In Italy, rues, such as Ruta spp., wild fennel and other members of the Umbelliferae family, such as parsley, are favorites for the caterpillars of the swallowtail (Papilio machaon Linnaeus), known in Italian as the macaone, and considered its loveliest butterfly.
 
The caterpillar of the small cabbage white butterfly, known as the cavolaia in Italian, prefers members of the Brassica oleracea, or cabbage family; it loves nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus).
 
When in caterpillar form, the butterfly known as the Scarce Swallowtail, even if it is not, and whose Latin name is Iphiclides podalirius, and is called the podalirio in Italian, favors blackthorn, or sloe (Prunus spinosa), as well as other members of the Rosaceae family, such as plums, peach, and apricot.
 
Nectar-based plants for adult butterflies
 
Adult butterflies feed through a tube and are thus able only to eat liquids. These plants are examples of such nectar-rich plants:
 
 • Verbena pulchella and Verbena bonariensís);
 • Lantana (Lantana sellowíana);
 • Yellow Alyssum (Alyssum saxatile);
 • Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)
 • Lacy phacelia, also known as blue tansy or purple tansy (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
 • European goldenrod or woundwort (Solidago virga-aurea);
 
While Buddleja davidii, also known as summer lilac, butterfly-bush, or orange eye is very atractive to butterflies, botanists do not recommend it, though, as it can become invasive. Other options are preferable.
 
Expo Milano 2015 provides a perfect opporuntity for finding out more about our planet’s biodiversity. The  Biodiversity Park focuses on Italy, and showcases the country’s environment, agriculture, and food production. Visitors to the park will see how Italy’s agricultural biodiversity has evolved and has been taken care of, their visit complemented by events, seminars, and multi-media experiences.
 

The video interview with Jeremy Rifkin

Economy / -

Italy is the best place to talk about food, nutrition and bring up the burning question of the next 50 years: how to feed 9 billion people. Jeremy Rifkin, economist, writer and Ambassador of Expo Milano 2015 makes his point in a video interview.

Over a million people are already #FoodConscious. What about you?

The ExpoNet Manifesto