November in Italy is the time of the Saffron harvest. This luxurious and highly prized ingredient is an essential part of the Italian larder, used particularly for its spice and colour. This week we visited the organic farm Poggio Alloro just outside San Gimignano to discover more about it.
Saffron as you probably know is the stigma or thread of the crocus sativus flower. Cultivated on flat fields it takes around 400 flowers to produce a single gram of saffron. The bulbs are planted in August and typically harvest takes place over a period of two weeks during November. The highly manual process begins early in the morning before the flowers open at around 9am when it’s too late to pick them because the stigma can be damaged. The flowers are transferred inside where the family members and friends congregate to extract the stigma by hand and these are then dried for around 24 hours.
As you might expect, nature has a way of delivering good and bad years for saffron. In honesty, 2017 hasn’t been easy due to the lack of available water so yields are down significantly. By contast, the team at Poggio Alloro still recalls 2012 for it’s fabulous (and bountiful) results thanks to the right measure of water and a lovely cool autumn.
Saffron’s flavour and iodoform or hay-like fragrance results from the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. In addition, it contains a carotenoid pigment known as crocin, which is what imparts the rich golden hue to food and textiles. If you want to enjoy it at its best, make sure to by the threads rather than the powder. Here are a few good dishes to experiment with from Yotam Ottolenghi.
Cultivating Saffron is an ancient craft, an immensely laborious process and for this reason it’s an ingredient we should celebrate at this time of the year.