Zafferano: Hermes's Golden Gift
Legend has it that Hermes was casting his discus one day, and struck his friend Crocus, who fell dead; to honor Crocus's memory the God tinged the flowers upon which his friend lay scarlet. Not the petals, which are pale purple, but the stigmas. The legend doesn't say if the God also gave the stigmas the distinctive, rather haunting aroma that has made saffron one of the most sought after spices on the world markets, but if He did He gave us a great gift.
Setting legend aside, saffron is harvested from the Crocus sativus, which is native to the orient, and though historians say it was introduced to Europe by the Arabs (the word saffron derives from assfar, which means yellow), the Greek legend suggests that it was at least known sooner. What the Europeans did with it prior to the Arabs is however open to question, because its use in Western Europe is most prevalent in regions that were under Arab influence at some point, for example Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain; the Spaniards in turn exported it to the regions they dominated, for example Lombardia, where it is now the principal ingredient of Milano's signature dish, the golden yellow risotto alla milanese.
It's not a common ingredient in Tuscany, and this comes as a surprise because San Gimignano was one of the major Italian saffron producers in the middle ages; her merchants exported it both east and west, earning fabulous profits that financed the construction of the city's famed towers, while Florentine and Sienese painters used it as a pigment, doctors used it to cure a variety of conditions including the plague, and the Bishop of Volterra, whose bishopric includes San Gimignano, once used it to pay off a Papal envoy. The nobility must have used it at table then, but presumably stopped using it when the establishment of crocus plantations elsewhere by the European colonial powers during the 1700s put San Gimignano's saffron producers out of business.
Its cultivation did survive in a few areas of Italy, notably the Abruzzi and Sardegna, and now people are working to reestablish the saffron crop in both San Gimignano and Sicily. In all cases it's a labor of love because it's incredibly labor intensive: the crocus sativa blossoms in October-November and pickers work their way through the fields daily, harvesting the blossoms that are ready and bringing them back to their workshops, where they carefully remove the stigmas, lightly oil them, dry them, and package them. The average blossom will have three stigmas, and it takes 50,000 flowers to gather a pound of saffron. The work is all by hand, and this explains saffron's high price.
Saffron's price also means that you have to be careful when you buy it: I recall seeing a row of empty saffron jars in a supermarket once -- the jars had contained little packets of the spice, and someone simply pocketed them. It's easy to avoid this particular misadventure, but be certain to buy your saffron from a reputable source, because unscrupulous producers have been known to stretch their saffron with a variety of other ingredients, including wool. These are, of course, saffron stigmas, which look like tiny scarlet threads. Saffron is also sold powdered, but you should purchase stigmas if possible because they keep better, and it is easier for an unscrupulous spice merchant to adulterate the powder. What with? Either safflower, which imparts color but has no effect on flavor, or tumeric, which again imparts color, but also imparts a distinctive cypress-cedar aroma.
No matter what you buy, keep it in a cool dark place. Some final observations on saffron: The package will be very small -- the packages I was given by the growers of Turri, in Sardegna, are 0.1 grams -- about an eighth of a teaspoon, and are sufficient for a recipe that will serve eight. Use the powder as is. If you instead have threads, gently toast them and grind them before using them. Finally, when to add the saffron? There are several different schools of thought; though some people add it early on in the cooking many wait until the dish is almost done lest the heat of the cooking drive off the delicate oils that give saffron its tantalizing aroma.
ENOUGH TALK! SOME RECIPES
Arancini di Riso
Rice balls, breaded and fried, which contain a tasty filling: Classic Sicilian street food.
Risotto Giallo ai Finferli
A delicate mushroomy risotto that gains grace from saffron.
Risotto alla Milanese
Saffron laced, this is one of Milano's crowning glories..
A rich risotto made with veal, which owes a special something to saffron.
Risotto Giallo Con La Rana Pescatrice
Monkfish is also known as the poor man's lobster, which gives an idea of how tasty it is. And here it is combined with saffron to make the perfect first course for a festive or romantic meal, say Christmas Eve or Valentine's Day.
Penne Con Carciofi e
Arichokes work quite nicely with saffron.
Ravioli con Verdura
A Sardinian variation on the classic ricotta-and-greens filling, which gains grace from saffron.
Linguine with lobster sauce, the perfect centerpiece for a romantic meal.
These Sardinian gnocchi are made with semolina, and gain grace and color from saffron.
Spaghetti con Conchiglie, Cozze e
Unusual spaghetti with clams, mussels, and... Saffron.
Pasta Cu li Sardi
Sicily's classic signature pasta sauce features an unusual combination of sardines and fennel, all laced with pine nuts and raisins.
Minestra di Ceci con Zafferano
An unusual saffron laced soup with spinach to add contrasting green.
A classic Sicilian recipe that accompanies the cuscus with fish rather than meat.
Taganu di Aragona
A rich, eggy Easter timballo from Aragona, in the province of Agrigento.
Scampi alla Busara
Scampi from Friuli, done in a zesty tomato sauce atop the stove. Also, a quick, simple shrimp scampi.
Agnello allo Zafferano
A Sardinian stewed lamb that gains color and elegance from saffron.
Ciambellone allo Zafferano
A rich, sunny, citrussy ring cake.
Saffron-laced Sardinian fritters to celebrate Carnevale.
A COUPLE OF LINKS
All sorts of information from Peggy Towbridge, who also has lots of links to non-Italian recipes.
I wish to thank the kind folks of Zafferano Itria (Via Berlinguer 3 -- 09020 Turri (CA); Tel. 0783 95 101; email@example.com) for giving me several packets of saffron, and also for giving me Maria Itria Paulis's Zafferano, Sesstanta Ricette Tipiche di Sardegna, a fascinating cookbook from which a number of the recipes presented here were drawn. The photographs used to illustrate this article were taken at their booth at Torino's Salone del Gusto.
Got more sites / recipes to suggest? Let me know.