y acquaintance with saffron began during childhood, with trips to a Cuban neighborhood in Tampa where old men hand-rolled cigars and simple restaurants proffered steaming plates of brilliant arroz con pollo, “chicken with yellow rice.” Later visits to Spain offered paellas, all with saffron as an invariable ingredient. But what about Italy? So close to Spain, on major trade routes from Asia Minor, and perhaps from where saffron originated — Persia and Armenia are the leading candidates. Even Germans have a nursery rhyme, a version of “patty cake” that calls for “saffron yellow.”
Though saffron has been missing from the Italian culinary picture in the recent centuries, there is little doubt that it was vital as a medicine, a dye, and a spice in the Middle Ages. Now, the pungent flower is making a subtle comeback on Italian tables.
Best not to begin in Rome, where saffron is little known unless you pick a northern restaurant (a must in risotto alla milanese). Modern-day Romans are not keen on this unfamiliar taste — although a small mozzarella shop at Via Garigliano 68, Agricola Stella, sells Piacentinu Ennese, a fragrant saffron-peppercorn cheese from Sicily.
There’s far better foraging where crocus attivus, the saffron crocus, is cultivated: Umbria, Abruzzo, and Tuscany. Once a familiar part of the medieval landscape in Italy, the saffron crocus has been reintroduced into those areas.
Two towns in Umbria, Città della Pieve and Cascia, host saffron festivals in October when the crocus flowers are harvested by hand. The latter is known as the sanctuary for St. Rita, patron saint of desperate and impossible situations.
Città della Pieve’s big draw is the artist Perugino (1450-1522). In 2004, his work drew some 45,000 visitors. Art historian Valerio Bittarello noted that Perugino used saffron in mixing some of his paints, while his contemporaries used saffron to dye textiles.
Franca Viganò has a different kind of history with saffron. Her late husband Alberto adored her risotto alla milanese — she used bone marrow, no longer sold, and saffron threads. During a trip to Spain in 1980, the couple brought back 12 crocus attivus bulbs, called “croco” by the locals. A year later, they began giving away bulbs to friends who in turn cultivated the crocus. Vasco Fattorini, a Sienese city official, noted that the consortium of saffron growers, which is named after Alberto Viganò, had 22 members last year.
The crocus attivus resembles the purple crocus that blooms in spring in the eastern United States. The saffron crocus blooms in the fall and produces the prized stigma, the female part of the flower that includes the three red threads that rise up from the single stem. (The “anther” is the male yellow part with the pollen.)
Each saffron crocus bulb is planted about 10 centimeters underground and produces four to ten flowers in October. A plot with 800 bulbs yields about 80 grams of saffron. Between 100,000-200,000 flowers are required to produce a kilo of saffron threads.
The bulb is left underground during the winter, taken out in July, and divided and replanted in August. (Rather than leave them fallow underground, replanting can increase reproduction by as much as 50 percent.) The costs are in preparing the soil, buying, planting and tending the bulbs, and picking flowers (at a rate of about 750 flowers per hour).
Saffron is fragile. The gathering and storing process is a marvel of tiny details. The purple and white flower must be carefully picked, usually early in the morning while the bloom is still closed with only a tiny bit of the top open. Farmers take only the caps and leave the stems, and place the flowers gently into a basket. They then remove the stigma delicately, preferably leaving the three threads attached rather than pulled apart. Larger flowers produce longer stigma, a plus.
The stigma are placed in a shallow pot (it resembles a tambourine with a mesh bottom) and are quickly shaken and toasted over a fire, which dries them quickly to preserve their taste and color. The dried saffron stigma or threads (usually .25-.30 grams) are bottled in glass vials destined for wholesalers, retail stores, and local markets. The vials are stored away from humidity and light.
Chefs note that the threads are far superior to powdered saffron, but some like to use saffron powder to “rinforzare”: a sprinkle that gives that final “boost” to a dish.
According to Curgonio Cappelli. a plant pathologist at the University of Perugia, fragile saffron is always at risk: fungus can attack bulbs, and an early frost can damage flowers. Wild boar, commonplace in the thick countryside of Umbria, also find the earthen bulb tasty. (Boar truly lead the lifestyle of the rich and famous, feasting on saffron and truffles — two of Italy’s most expensive food items.)
A key plant in the ancient and medieval garden, saffron was probably first used as a cure for a variety of maladies including respiratory ailments. It is also believed to possess aphrodisiac properties. Fragrance makers at Comme des Garçon created “Man,” a fragrance for men that uses saffron flowers and other scents.
Alessandro Mazzuoli, an agronomist and saffron grower, cautions about “saffron substitutes.” Turmeric and safflower (known locally as “false saffron” and used primarily to produce oil and margarine) produce a deceptive yellow color. And color can sway the uninitiated. But nothing, he says. substitutes for saffron’s distinctive taste.
RECIPE: Franca Viganò’s Risotto MIlanese
Viganò used midollo, bone marrow, now prohibited for sale, to add richness and body. The ingredients she suggests are saffron, onion, olive oil, carnaroli rice, white wine, butter, cream, and parmesan. She cooks by “feel” and doesn’t measure, so I adapted her ingredients to the following proportions.
A few hours before cooking, put saffron threads in a glass with one cup of lukewarm water to allow the flavor to release itself. Iron or stainless steel skillet works fine, but be sure you have no fat residue in the pan or it will “dirty” the pale yellow color of your food
• 12-18 single stigmas (threads) of saffron (if the 3 threads are still attached, then use 4-6 clusters of 3)
• 1 cup lukewarm water
• 1 white onion (golf ball size), diced finely
• 1 cup carnaroli rice (a commercial brand is Riso Scotti)
• 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt
• 1 cup dry white wine (I used chardonnay, but cooking wine would do)
• 4 Tbsp. butter, room temperature
• 4 Tbsp. heavy cream, room temperature or gently warm
• 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Sauté onion in olive oil until transparent and soft over low heat. Add carnaroli rice and salt, sauté until rice is transparent. (Note: Do not allow the onion or rice to brown, they should be pale.)
Slowly add cup of white wine, stirring constantly. As the rice absorbs each bit of liquid, add another “gulp” (about 1/4 cup) before the rice dries out or burns.
After wine evaporates, slowly add the glass of water with saffron threads, just enough to moisten rice, stirring frequently. Simmer over low heat, adding liquid until it evaporates. (If rice sticks to bottom, quickly cover the pan with a lid, no heat, for 2-3 minutes; the heat creates steam that frees the rice.)
Put into serving dish, preferably warm, so that rice does not cool down. Quickly add a bit of cream and butter to help bind the flavors together. Toss freshly grated Parmesan cheese and serve at once.
Cooking time: 45-60 minutes. Serves 4.
For stronger saffron taste and color, use more saffron (12 threads give a subtle hint). Sauté the onion and rice in butter, instead of olive oil. Add more butter if you don’t have cream handy. Use arborio rice if carnaroli is not available.
Adjust Parmesan use depending on preference. If you anticipate late guests, stop before you use up all the liquid: turn off heat, reserve 1/2 cup of the last bit, then heat it up when they arrive using remaining liquid and finish the recipe.
ITINERARY: Saffron splurging in Umbria
CITTÀ DELLA PIEVE
Saffron Festival held on the last two Sundays of October, taverns around town feature saffron dishes. Tourist office, tel. 0578.299.375. The “online town” has extensive information.
Osteria del Duca Best pick for a saffron blitz — but make sure it’s open. Locally grown saffron from the hills of Città della Pieve is the star. Bruschetta is made with the rare fagiolini del Trasimeno, a local tiny white bean, sautéed with onion and saffron.
The girasole del Duca, sunflower-shape raviolo filled in center with fragrant saffron ricotta, pecorino, and pepper. The chickpea soup with chestnuts is lit by saffron. Pork spezzatino comes in a saffron sauce. Also, fennel sformato flavored with saffron.
For dessert, saffron biscotti; lovely yellow torta dell’oste, a light saffron sponge cake. Saffron is not compulsory as most dishes are made to order.
— Open Wednesday lunch and Fri., Sat., Sun. 4-11 p.m., other times by advance request for small groups. Via Po’ di Mezzo, 3. Tel. 0578.299.866. Excellent value: €3-7.50.
Loggia del Perugino A villa with garden, Le Sibille Restaurant has reasonable prices (€6-8 and, some saffron dishes. Art books in library, bikes, beauty treatments, Turkish bath, massage.
— See Perugina excursions, Viale dei Cappuccini, 7. Tel. 0578.298927. Fax 0578.297340. Getting there: From Rome, take Autostrada A-1, exit Fabro.
L’Alchemista Wine Bar and Olive Oil Bar Molle della Valnerina di Cascia is fragrant local saffron cheese baked with pancetta and zucchini, might be served with braised wild greens picked that morning. Friendly owners, good prices (€3-7). All recipes same-day cooked.
— Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner; also serves hot meals in-between times. Closed Thursday in winter. MC,V. Piazza del Comune, 14. Tel. 0742.378.558. Getting there: Autostrada A1 (from north exit Perugia, south exit Orte) to Superstrada 75 toward Foligno.
Il Pentagramma Stone walls, cotta floors, and a wood-burning oven: Cozy. Try homemade tagliatelle with a vegetable sauce aromatically sprinkled with local powdered saffron. Also, fiori di zucca, lightly roasted ricotta-filled pumpkin flowers, served on a bed of tomato sauce with wild thyme; strangozzi with tomatoes, parsley, garlic, and hot peppers; pureed farro soup served in its own “bread-crust” bowl. Excellent roast pheasant served with a sauce of its pureed innards.
— Closed Monday. DC, MC,V. Via Martani, 4 (Piazza della Libertá). Tel. 0743.223.141. Getting there: Train to Spoleto, taxi or shuttle bus uphill. Autostrada A1 (from north exit Perugia, south exit Orte) to Superstrada 75. Overnight: Hotel Palazzo Dragone. Beware Room No. 10 with a view so breathtaking view you won’t want to leave, Via del Duomo, 13. Spoleto. Tel. 0743.222.220.