Protected Designation of Origin saffron from Abruzzo or Zafferano purissimo dell’Aquila is commonly referred to as ‘red gold’. This gold continues to breathe life and honour into this rugged mountainous area of Italy.
Although there are no documents to prove the following story, it is believed that a Dominican monk from Navelli was visiting Spain in 1230 where he saw saffron bulbs and became enamored with agriculture. When he returned to Navelli, he brought saffron bulbs with him for his brother who was a local farmer. Based on his agricultural studies, he worked with his brother to increase yields and improve agricultural techniques. At the start, it was exclusively used as a medicine. The terrain and air currents here were different and more favorable than those in Spain. Bulbs tripled every year in this small area. This is how Altopiano di Navelli became well known for saffron growing.
I spent two days with Gina Sarra and her family learning about saffron, the Cooperative Altopiano di Navelli and tasting homemade dishes. We talked for hours. Here is Gina’s story as told to us.
Background of the Cooperative of ‘Altopiano di Navelli’
“Today the cooperative ‘Altopiano di Navelli’ has nearly 100 members and the number is growing. Nearly all families in this area cultivated saffron in the past because it provided a secure income. In the 1950s the saffron market was ruined for the Abruzzesi. Saffron imported from Spain was on the rise where manual labor cost significantly less. One kilo of our saffron was equivalent to 10 kilos of imported saffron.”
“As a result, the cultivators kept saffron at home. They started feeding the bulbs to sheep and cows destroying them as saffron wasn’t being sold. Within a few years saffron cultivation had greatly decreased to one hectare. Saffron started to disappear.”
“My brother Silvio knew the importance and history of saffron and was passionate about his hometown and botanics. He wanted to find a way to save and reignite saffron production. How? By starting the cooperative. It took 3 years to convince people to join. Producers were very skeptical but Silvio was confident of its importance. The coopertive was founded on April 7, 1971 with 35 partners.”
“When my brother passed away we created a foundation in my his name dedicated to improve saffron growing and business. In Italy we consume 8 or 9 quintals of saffron. We sell bulbs. We want to give the opportunity to others to try using our bulbs to improve their economic situation.”
“The air currents which pass through the Altopiano di Navelli favor the growth of saffron flowers. The climate is perfect which is the most important factor. We have no need for an agronomist. We use our eyes, noses and sense of touch. We sense when the best day for harvesting arrives. Harvest happens when the flowers bloom. The harvest happens sometimes over the course of one week, 15 days, 1 month… It’s not ideal if it happens in one week because when all of the flowers bloom in a short period of time they are usually smaller. The harvest almost always happens starting in the middle of October to the middle of November. We leave a few bulbs at home that sound the alarm if they are beginning to bloom. Every year growers must replant bulbs.”
“Most harvest days start before dawn and end after midnight. The blossoms are harvested early in morning before sunrise when the flowers open. The flowers are composed of six light violet petals with crimson red stigma divided into three threads and three yellow stamen. The stigma are the part of the pistilare rapidly removed by hand from the flowers to avoid ruining the saffron. They are then placed in a upturned flour sieve and hung above oak or almond wood embers in our fireplace. The is the most crucial moment of all the work. During the toasting the stigma lose 5/6 of their weight, from 600 grams of fresh stigma we get 100 grams of dried ones. There is an immense amout of labor involved in saffron production. It takes approximately 200,000 flowers and 500 hours of work to produce 1 kilo of saffron. Some is transformed into saffron powder while most saffron is sold as dry threads.”
We sat at Gina’s kitchen table, talking and eating the saffron risotto that she made, and a dessert of saffron infused ricotta sweetened with sugar which she cooked.
The cooperative is a dream for Gina. She hopes to carry her brother’s work forward. She is committed to learning every day how to better lead the organization and how to better publicize the cooperative. The cooperative doesn’t plan to advertise so they rely on press coverage.
I hope that by writing about her passion and dream, we can help to spread the word. You may arrange a visit by contacting the ‘Altopiano di Navelli’ cooperative. You can buy or order Gina’s saffron at La Tradizione in Rome.