ave you ever wondered why we humans are charmed by anything that resembles gold?
Take saffron, which is by far the most golden of foods. Exotic and expensive, the history of the spice fluctuates between myth and legend.
The Romans were fond of saffron, which they used as a medicine, a perfume, a dye and even an aphrodisiac.
The aphrodisiac debate raged for millennia. As late as the 19th century, scientists remained at odds over saffron’s alleged effect on libido, with some insisting it actually weakened the sex drive. Food for thought the next time you have risotto for dinner.
Saffron cultivation dropped off in Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire. It returned with the Moors, who occupied much of Spain in the early Middle Ages, and planted it again between 800 and 900 A.D.
Umbria has cultivated the crocus flower from which saffron is cultivated since about 1200, though the fact is little known. These days, saffron is in the midst of a renaissance, triggered in part by a newfound interest in regional heritage and, just as important, the newfound emphasis on organic farming. I honestly wasn’t aware of the revival until I picked up a leaflet that offered a “saffron tasting.”
Curious, I followed up on the tasting, finding myself, one sunny Sunday, on a day trip to Valnerina, a verdant valley in Umbria’s southeast. I knocked on a farmhouse door, and out came lovely Rita Giampiccolo and her family, Marta, Claudio and Luca. These people pair their passion for the anthropology and botany of the area with the diligence needed to cultivate the valley’s steep fields. Their home garden is a small Eden planted with aromatic and medicinal herbs, heritage apple varieties and wild flowers.
During my first visit, I learned that to see actual saffron blossoms, I had to be present in October, when the elusive flowers suddenly appear on a slope of pearly grey soil.
Their crop is annual and each precious purple crocus lasts but a day. Only a few flowers per plant open each morning. They must be harvested by hand swiftly at around 9 a.m., before the onset of high humidity or heat.
The blossoms are low-key, nothing like the extravaganza of a field of lavender or poppies. They are magnificent and precious in their own modest way.
Later in the day, family members busily remove the stigma, which contains the spice, all by hand. Slowly. Carefully.
The stigmata are dried using the natural heat of a woodstove. The resulting spice is complex, earthy and floral. Delightful.
The striking purple petals are edible and can be used for salads, desserts, or dyes. The Giampiccolo family field produces only between one and two pounds of saffron a year, the equivalent of 10,000 to 20,000 flowers, all picked and processed by hand within the span of one month.
Learning about the process is life changing. Because of both the hard work and devotion required to get to the finished product. Never again will I hold a pinch of saffron threads in my hand without respect.
The harvesting of saffron serves as a humbling reminder that despite the mass agricultural production on which much of the world depends, some farmers remain stalwart in their efforts to work the land on their own loving terms. They willingly preserve millenary traditions because it’s what they know.
Call it a way of life or a miracle in disguise, but in any case, it reflects a respectful and inspiring view of the earth.
Chickpea soup with chives and saffron (serves 4)
- 180 gram (4 oz.) dried chickpeas (garbanzo) or 540 g (20 oz.) cooked chickpeas.
For the vegetable stock
- 1 onion.
- 1 carrot.
- 1 celery stick.
- 1 small tomato to finish.
- 2 garlic cloves, very finely minced.
- 6 to 9 filaments saffron per person.
- 2-3 teaspoon finely chopped chives.
- Extra virgin olive oil.
- Top quality fresh chili pepper or black pepper.
— Soak saffron in warm water, cover and keep soaked overnight or at least 6 hours. If using dry chickpeas, soak overnight, then rinse and drain. Place beans in a pot and cover with at least 10 cm. (4 inches) water. Add the stock vegetables, cover and simmer for 1 to 3 hours — depending on age and size of the beans — until tender.
— If using cooked chickpeas, boil the stock vegetables in water for 10 minutes. Add beans to the stock and boil 15 more minutes. If you are cooking the beans in advance, cool and refrigerate or freeze until needed.
— When almost ready to serve, remove most of the stock from the beans and reserve. Blend until smooth adding stock as needed to obtain velvet-like consistency. Add saffron and its soaking liquid.
— Prepare chopped chives, garlic and serving bowls.
— Saute the garlic in olive oil until fragrant, less than a minute. Add the blended garbanzo beans with a few heaping ladlefuls of their cooking liquid. Salt lightly and bring to low boil. If you want a spicy soup, add the fresh chili pepper or a twist or two of black pepper.
—Serve in large bowls sprinkled with your absolutely best olive oil.