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Saffron: The Exotic Red Powder


Saffron is known especially for being one of the main ingredients of a typical Italian dish, risotto alla Milanese, to which it gives its characteristic yellow color. It is used in other rice dishes, too

Navelli in Abruzzo, just south of the National Park of Gran Sasso, is considered the world capital for high quality saffron.


Saffron stamens (David Hawkins-Weeks/flickr)


Saffron comes from a fall-blooming crocus flower Crocus Sativus. The flower has been cultivated, it is believed, for some 5000 years. In Greek and Roman times, it was used as a medicine and a dye as well as in cooking and as a flavoring for wine. Saffron is also cultivated in Spain, the Middle East, East Texas and India but it does not grow as well in India because it needs to be dried for long dry periods.

It takes from 45,000 to 90,000 crocus flowers to make one pound of Saffron (100,000 to 200,000 to make a kilogram). The crocus flower is light purple but the stigmas, the part that provides the powder, are orange-red. The red powder gives the characteristic yellow color to food where it is used.

Today the total production of saffron in Navelli is 80Kg a year. This is because the only usable parts of the flower are the red stigmas, which need to be separated from the rest of the flower by hand. The associated cost of this process is quite high in Italy where manual labor is much more expensive than in other counties. The quality of the Italian saffron is however reportedly superior, as Navelli uses only the stigmas while other countries also use other portions of the plant. Furthermore, like all crocuses, saffron is a crocus bulb and reproduces only by producing additional bulbs.


Saffron is used in many Italian dishes, including Sicilian arancini (Stijn Nieuwendijk/flickr)


During the Middle Ages, Navelli was the most important saffron source in Europe with distributors even in Northern Europe. Italian saffron has a coloring power well above average and a high content of safranale, the most important aromatic element. Another distinguishing factor is that Navelli saffron is dried over oak ashes, which reduces its weight to 1/5th of the original. Preserving saffron is easy: it does not require preservatives or refrigeration, but only to be kept a clean, dry, dark place.


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