The Saffron of Navelli – ‘Worth it’s Weight in Gold’
Saffron (crocus sativus) the world’s most expensive spice, renowned for its superior quality and truly Abruzzi’s “Jewel in the crown”.
Abruzzo owes a lot to saffron, the wealth of L’Aquila the regions capital was built on the demand for this extravagant spice.
The middle ages saw L’Aquila as a key trading post between the markets of Florence and Naples, where the spice was traded for other valuable commodities.
The production of saffron is extremely labour intensive and must be done by hand. Around 200,000 purple flowers are picked to produce a 1 kg yield of golden threads, explaining the reason why the spice commands such high prices. The purple crocus blossoms protect long golden – yellow filaments known as stigmas.
The saffron of Navelli is arguably the best saffron in the world, far superior to its Spanish and Sardinian relatives, due to its extra long threads, strong scent and deep red colour.
Crocus sativus will not grow everywhere, only where the climate and terrain are ideal, hence why cultivation only takes place in around a dozen locations across Europe.
The valley and steps of Piana di Navelli provide the perfect environment for cultivation as documented by the inhabitants who tell the story of a visiting Dominican monk Domenico Cantucci around 1300’s during Spanish inquisition times and the fall of the Roman empire.
The man of the cloth immersed himself in the regions agriculture and particularly the cultivation of saffron.
The crocus bulbs are planted in August when the fertile soil is dry and the sun is at its strongest. The flowers are then harvested around the end of October for about a 3-week period depending on weather conditions. The hand picking of the purple crocus flowers can only happen early morning before sunrise when the strong scent and aroma is at its peak and more importantly before the early morning sun opens the blossoms and damages the golden threads. The tight crocus petals also make the back-breaking arduous picking process easier.
Ancient Roman mythology tells the story of the god mercury that hit his friend accidentally whilst throwing a discus, the blood flew away from his friends wound colouring the nearby crocus red as memory of his suffering.
Saffron is documented to have medicinal properties, packed with anti oxidants used to treat wounds, colds, epilepsy and depression. Perhaps more passionately, this exotic spice is also believed to be an aphrodisiac.
The unique flavour of saffron marries itself to a variety of sweet and savoury dishes.
Risotto di Zafferano- Navelli saffron risotto
As we sat around the kitchen table at Casa verde the obvious conversation was food, with no surprise saffron being the main topic of focus.
Risotto was mentioned which prompted me to raise my knowledge surrounding the great risotto Milanese, saffron risotto enhanced with veal marrow bone and accompaniment to classic dish osso bucco Milanese.
Showing off with my knowledge, I glanced to see Gina’s whole body language change, she quickly corrected me, and we would be having risotto di zafferano. Italians are proud people especially when it comes to their own region and in particular food.
The creamy, golden risotto arrived as I proceeded to change the subject, avoiding myself any further conflict.
Serves 4 people
N.B. When using saffron strands in this recipe they first must be soaked and infused in a little warm water or stock
360g Risotto rice (preferably Carnaroli variety)
2 Shallots or ½ white onion (peeled and finely diced)
150g Butter salted
50g Parmesan cheese (grated)
1 glass of dry white wine
1/2g saffron threads
550ml veal or beef stock
Salt & pepper
Melt 100g of butter and sauté and soften the finely diced shallot in a deep-bottomed pan without colouring.
Now add the risotto rice to the pan, stirring well so all the grains are lightly coated in butter and the rice is toasted slowly without colour.
Next add the white wine and stir into the rice until evaporates. Then gradually add the hot beef stock, stirring frequently to release the starches from the rice and until all the stock is totally absorbed.
At this stage add the pre-soaked saffron threads and stir into the risotto. Remove from the heat and add the remaining butter and grated Parmesan cheese, season with salt and pepper and serve.
Until next time -TSC