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.