Perugino’s saffron

In Food, Italy, Travel, Umbria
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Saffron production in central Italy dates back to the 13th century. After dying out in the 17th century, when it was supplanted by spanish imports, crocus cultivation has enjoyed a recent revival.  Agricultural consortia located across Umbria are expanding production of this valuable spice.


Città della Pieve, a Medieval hill town in the Chiana valley, is the birthplace of Pietro Vannucci – ‘Perugino’, a mentor of Raphael. The local saffron producers’ cooperative is grandly called, loosely translated, the association of “The Saffron Crocus of Pietro Perugino di Città della Pieve “Alberto Viganò””, named after both Vannucci and the local agronomist who reintroduced saffron production to the area in the mid-80s.

Planting is in August, with flowers developing from the bulbs around 60 days later.


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The October harvest takes place over 10-15 days, beginning around 18th, depending on weather conditions. This particular plot typically yields 2,000-4,000 flowers per day. Production, processing and packaging require up to 122 hours per 100 square metres of land, meaning that only small-scale producers with access to family labour at an acceptable opportunity cost are attracted to the crop.

 

A single bulb typically produces five flowers, each containing three vivid crimson stigmas.

The product is dried gently over cooled charcoal at a temperature of around 40 degrees centigrade with occasional movement to ensure the best results. The laborious production process is reflected in the price of around €30/gram.

The annual ‘Zafferiamo” (“Let’s Saffron”!) festival is advertised on posters in town. Zafferiamo is driven by the Association and supported by municipal and regional authorities. It is an annual celebration and promotion of the crocus harvest, with food and art demonstrations, and a market for saffron and its derivative products.

Alessandro Mazzuoli, owner of the farm featured in these images, was elected President of the Città della Pieve association in 2002. Here he demonstrates the drying process using stigmas from flowers collected by the visitors from an association member’s plot just outside the town walls as part of the festival activities.

 The classic risotto alla Milanese is among the better known saffron dishes, but it is also used to add its distinctive flavour to meats, fish, vegetables and desserts and incorporated into products including beers, liqueurs, biscuits, pastas, condiments and toiletries. One of the Association’s customers is the Lake Trasimeno fishing cooperative, who use it to flavour lake-caught perch dishes.

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