The thousand faces of saffron

In the beginning, there was a flower – the crocus. However, it’s not the only example of using flowers in cooking

What does saffron mean? Nothing could be simpler, it comes from “asfar” an Arabic word meaning yellow.

This precious spice also serves as a colourant, so much so that Alessandro Magno washed his hair with it because his hair was growing lighter. Then, every so often, the majestic emperor wanted to colour his hair, as women do today, or at least have some sunny orange highlights.

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It goes without saying that this colourant has been used since ancient times on fabrics, achieving warm yellow tones which have a luminous effect that makes the faces of its users even more beautiful.

Saffron, however, is very expensive, which is not surprising when you think about the method for collecting it: it’s a plant, a perennial herb with one or two flowers which have, at the end of the pistils, special stigma or short yellow-red filaments which give off a strong bitter and spicy aroma. It takes a lot of time and a great deal of patience to collect the stigmas. You need between 85 and 140 thousand to make a kilogram of saffron. This explains the price of the spice, in any era. At certain times, it has also been used as currency, as it was that sought after.

The most famous dishes seasoned with saffron in Italy are the famous risotto alla milanese in the north and Sicilian sardine pasta in the south. Syrups and liqueurs can also be made from saffron.

Spain is famous for its Mancha saffron. Saffron is cultivated in various regions of Italy such as Abruzzo or Tuscany where it is famous for being produced by prisoners in the San Gimignano prison in Siena. Here, cultivating the plant has become a tool for re-education and social inclusion.

There are some historic stories which describe the jealous protection of the production methods of saffron: in Nuremberg in 1400s, adulterating the precious spice incurred the death penalty.

Then, with the arrival of tea, coffee and chocolate, the herb lost some of its exclusivity and the price fell, so then even the poor were sometimes able to enjoy it in a big pot of risotto or pasta with sardines.

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