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Saffron is a spice that dates back thousands of years. It was known in ancient times in Asia Minor, where it was seemingly used for dying fabric and colouring objects in glass, and its gastronomic and medicinal uses were discovered later.

It appeared in Italy around the 1200s, apparently thanksto a Dominican friar, and it cultivation was highly successful, especially in Tuscany.The areas of Florence and Siena were the most important production centres, and important
references describe Florence saffron as one of the absolute best, and the city itself was an international marketplace for the product. Indeed, in order to distinguish it from the others, it was called "Zima di Firenze". The prestigious stamens were a highly prized exchange commodity, and the blossoms were used to embellish sumptuous banquets. Saffron is one of the most precious spices because most of its ingredients (crocetin, crocin and pyrocrocin) belong to the family of carotenoids, up to 8%. These components are anti-oxidants, and they counteract ageing by combating free radicals. In addition to flavour, saffron gives dishes a beautiful golden colour reminiscent of the sun that "feeds" the Crocus Sativus bulbs grown in the farms "of the Florence hills" which belong to the group of producers of the same name.
The members of the promotion committee of saffron from the hills of Florence are about to receive a sought-after award for their efforts: DOP, the protected origin denomination in the process of finalisation also for the saffron of San Gimignano, another place where the spice has always been grown.
The high price of saffron is very easily explained. To get a kilo you must firstly get up very early in the morning (harvesting takes place at dawn in the Autumn when the flowers are still closed) have a strong back (you must continually bend and straighten up along the rows) and collect the pistils from 150 thousand flowers of Crocus Sativus. And it all has to be done by hand – machinery could destroy the delicate blossom of this beautiful purple coloured flower which gives saffron from its dried pistils. Luckily only a pinch is needed to give dishes a unique flavour and colour.
It is still a niche production in Italy, counting 50 hectares in only 5 regions including Tuscany which has 6 hectares. The Province of Florence alone produces 3 and a half kilos and the whole of Italy produces some 350 kilos. In order to be defined as extra-pure it must be sold exclusively in the form of stamens to be dissolved in warm water or other liquid (stock or milk) for at least an hour.


Published: 16/2/2013

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