This post is also available in our digital magazine, Issue 2, page 36.
Saffron picking in Navelli, Italy
Saffron crocus is one of the most expensive flowers in the world. If you are like most people, you have never seen a saffron flower, or don’t know what it looks like. The saffron flower itself is quite understated, and not even appreciated for its looks. Saffron is purple, like the 2014 Pantone color of the year, Radiant Orchid, but it is not as artistically elegant looking flower as the orchid is.
You will not see saffron crocus decorating even the most extravagant table settings, but you rather taste it in the dishes served at the dinner table. The purple bloom isn’t what makes saffron one of the most expensive flowers in the world, but it is the stigmas that make the most expensive spice in the world. It can take up to 250,000 flowers to make one pound of saffron spice, and even the price of saffron isn’t measured by stems of flowers, but by grams or ounces.
I visited the Abruzzo region in Italy to find saffron in the fields of Navelli, in the province of L’Aquila. Navelli is about a two-hour-drive to east from Rome, and is known for the best saffron in Italy, and even raved by the Iron Chef Mario Batali in New York. The amount of saffron produced here is so small though, that most New York City chefs never get it for their dishes, and it is mainly sold locally.
One of the reasons why saffron is so expensive is the fact that it can only planted once a year, in August, and then harvested two months later in late September or early October. The saffron plots are small in size, and the harvesting is labor intensive work. I visited Navelli right on time for the harvest season and I was lucky for the timing of my visit. It is not easy to predict the perfect harvesting time, and it takes a lot of experience and skill to first grow saffron, and then to know how and when to pick it.
The 80-year-old saffron picker Maria is up long before the sun rises at six thirty. The flowers have to be picked by dawn, before the sun opens the blossoms. Maria, her son and grandson are part of the Navelli saffron cooperative that packs and sells saffron to Italian markets. The real work starts after picking the flowers. The stigmas are carefully plucked off the flowers and the blossoms are thrown away. The stigmas are dried on low heat on natural fire. Even picking the correct type of wood to burn is important so the smoke won’t affect the taste of the saffron.
I enjoy seeing how the flowers are carefully picked in wicker baskets, and then placed in the back of the little Fiat and taken to their house just down the road in the center of tiny Navelli village. Maria shows how the stigmas are plucked. The place looks like a big farm house kitchen with a big fireplace where the saffron is dried. I am yet again amazed in this world, where something that is expensive and luxury for many, can be as small as dried stigmas of flowers.
Navelli is in the L’Aquila providence in Abruzzo, and it is still in many ways undiscovered by masses of tourists, but the area is beautiful. The close by Santo Stefano di Sessanio village is one of the most magical villages I have visited in Italy, or perhaps anywhere in the world. The entire approach to tourism here is different and respects the history and local traditions. Agriturismo is an Italian tourism concept that focuses in the authentic experiences and is also popular in Abruzzo. Agrituristmo means staying in a farm house, almost like a bed & breakfast-type of concept, but more immersed in the local culture and the nature. There are several this type of farm houses where you can stay, and experience the saffron picking in Navelli.
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