Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

Saffron: beauty and expensive tastes

Saffron: beauty and expensive tastes

Italian family kitchens are always well stocked with plenty of herbs, spices and seasoning that can turn even the simplest of dishes into culinary marvels. But there’s one spice that you won’t find in abundance, despite its popularity.

Saffron is one of the most expensive seasonings in the world, ranging from around US$500 to US$5,000 per ounce depending on the quality. What makes it so expensive is the fact that not only is it labor intensive to farm, but you need a lot of it to make up an ounce. Saffron is made from the dried stems of the purple crocus flower. With only three stems in each flower, it takes a lot of flowers – and nimble fingers – to harvest even a small amount.

If you come into contact with saffron, watch out, it stains very easily. This made it useful as a traditional ingreditent in potent dyes, which smelled very much like sweet tobacco. 

The Italian town most famous for saffron is Abruzzo. A couple of hours east of Rome, in the Abruzzo highlands grow some of the best saffron, or zafferano as it’s known locally, in the world. The pick of the bunch is L’Aquila saffron, which is so prized in Italy it’s rarely exported to the US.

Unsurprisingly, due to its cost saffron is used sparingly, even in local cuisine. But order scapece – pickled fish – and you might get a hint of saffron, which should be used to flavor the white vinegar used to preserve it. Failing that, if you’re really lucky, you might spot a strand or two on desserts in fancy restaurants.