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Harvesting ‘Red Gold’

On the early-morning drive from L’Aquila to San Pio delle Camere, an armoured truck zooms past us in the fog. Is saffron now transported by military?

The spice so expensive it’s called “red gold” has, according to local legend, been cultivated in Abruzzo’s high-altitude Navelli Plain ever since a Dominican monk returned from the court of the Spanish Inquisition with a taste for Iberian cooking and satchels of bulbs.

Among connoisseurs, zafferano dell’Aquila is revered as the world’s best. Its strands are thicker, darker crimson and more fragrantly musky than its prolific counterparts from Iran. And it is more costly, retailing for approximately $200 (U.S.) per gram. Although saffron once grew abundantly in this region, commercial cultivation is now limited to eight hectares that are strictly regulated, since 2005, by DOP guidelines.

We meet Nicola and Letizia Ursini hunched over widely spaced rows of pale purple crocuses, using wicker baskets to collect the flowers. New bulbs are planted in August in organic fields that lie fallow for five years, fertilized with sheep manure. (In Spain and Iran, the same bulbs are used for four years, which partly accounts for their saffron’s lower quality.) The labour-intensive harvest, which lasts only a couple of days, is fiddly work. The flowers must be picked as soon as they bloom but before the sun rises too high and the petals open. “Push and pull, so the stem breaks at the precise point but the root stays in the ground,” Nicola Ursini, a pizzeria owner, explains through a translator. Like most of the 60-odd saffron farmers in this area, the Ursini plot (approximately 200 sq. m) is a passion project. In a good year, their field yields 600 g and earns them approximately 7,000 euros. Ursini’s family has grown saffron for their own consumption since his mother was a child. They decided to join a local co-operative four years ago, after their personal crop was destroyed by wild boars. As business owners, their new field is now protected by electric fences and government insurance.

An hour later, we join his parents, Carmela and Ferdinand, in their crowded kitchen to help with the even more pains-taking process of pinching the stigmas from the blooms. Within minutes, our fingers are stained as dark yellow as those of chain-smokers.

The delicate red threads (all the white and yellow bits removed) are transferred to a fine-mesh toaster and heated with hot ash from the fireplace. The red threads grow darker as they shrivel, losing 80
percent of their precious weight: it takes approximately 180 crocus flowers to produce a single gram of this culinary gold.