In Europe, saffron is famously produced in Sardinia, the largest saffron-producing region of Italy (see 'November'), but also on the mainland - notably in Abruzzo, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna and Umbria.[www.zafferanoitaliano.it]
Four areas in Umbria are famous for their production of saffron: Citta della Pieve, Cascia, Gubbio & Spoleto and have been actively promoting the spice with public events such as special markets and food festivals in October
One example is the Zafferiamo celebrated in Citta della Pieve, near Perugia in Umbria each October:
In 2023 it was celebrated from 20th - 22nd October
As well as especially themed menus, food events and demonstrations, the sale of a range of products from biscuits, cakes and ice cream to honey, aperitifs and beer, all incorporating saffron, visitors discover that 'from cooking to fabrics, to painting and cosmetics, the possible uses of saffron are many and have their roots in the distant past; for this reason in Città della Pieve the spice is not just an agricultural product: its color tones and its scents are intertwined with its history and its art'
Saffron production in Citta della Pieve dates back to the 13thC. In 1279 the planting by outsiders of crocus bulbs within the contado or surroundings of the town was prohibited by statute. An important centre for the production of cloth since the 14th C, most saffron was used here for dying fabrics.
Today, some 30 growers make up the consortium 'Il Croco di Pietro Perugino - Zafferano di Citta della Pieve'.
28th - 29th October 2023
The 'Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafaran', the 'Rose of Saffron' festival has been celebrated in Consuegra, near Toledo every year since 1963. It is traditionally held on the last full weekend in October.
Because of its ideal climate 90% of Spain's saffron production is in the region of La Mancha, the identity of which is therefore strongly linked with the crop. Saffron produced here is regarded as the best quality in Spain and amongst the best in the world.
The Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafaran celebrates not just the cultivation of saffron but the traditional culture of Castilla-La Mancha, through its food, crafts, history and customs.
While saffron growers are the central feature of this fiesta,
a diverse range of activities, exhibitions and competitions are involved, including 'the proclamation of the Dulcinea and her Ladies in Waiting' and the 'Mill of Peace and Love' - a 16th-century windmill grinding wheat into flour, saffron picking competitions in which the goal is to extract the stigma and style from the flower as quickly as possible, a cooking competition celebrating La Mancha's traditional cuisine, and traditional music and dance featuring groups from all over the region.
Alessandro Mazzuoli, co-founder of the Italian Saffron Producers Association
a few notes about saffron ...
Thought to have been first grown by the Minoans on the island of Crete, where saffron-picking is depicted in ancient frescoes, saffron is a domesticated crocus - one of some 88 species recognized today (1) - which doesn't occur in the wild.
This beautiful crocus, with petals that range in colour from pale lilac to dark mauve, has given us the world's most expensive spice and our most valuable food product by weight. Saffron consists of the orange-red stigmas and style (referred to as 'threads' when dried) which are painstakingly separated by hand from the centre of each fragile flower. Some 450,000 dried stigmas taken from around 150,000 flowers are needed for 1 kg of saffron, (2) sometimes referred to as 'red gold'.
While native to Greece, and cultivated in the Mediterranean region since ancient times, saffron has been introduced to many other countries including Iran, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Czechoslovakia, Morocco, Italy and Spain.
In 2019 Iran was the country that produced the most saffron (430 tons), followed by India (22 tons) and then Greece (7.2 tons) [https://www.statista.com/].
With a history of use that stretches far back into antiquity, the Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and Romans used saffron as an ingredient of perfumes, cosmetics, medicines and sacred offerings, as a paint and dye and as a spice for flavouring and colouring food. It was also woven into textiles and scattered on the ground to scent the air.
Cleopatra is said to have bathed in saffron-perfumed water, while Alexander the Great took saffron baths to help heal his wounds. In his 'Historie of Plants' John Gerard, the Elizabethan physician reported that saffron was 'good for the head ... maketh the senses more quicke and lively ... and maketh a man merrie'. Today, studies suggest that saffron may indeed be helpful for depression.
Saffron was first cultivated in England in around 1350, probably in monastery gardens for medicinal use. it became a significant crop in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex. In recent years England has seen a revival of this historic crop in Norfolk, and in Essex near Saffron Walden, the town that took its name from the spice.
The following description (English translation) is taken from the official website of Citta della Pieve in Umbria, one of the Italian saffron-producing towns that holds a saffron festival each October. For more detailed information about saffron growing in Italy see: www.zafferanoitaliano.it:
'Its properties were known to the Egyptians as confirmed by the Ebers Papyrus of about 1550 BC, but also in the Cretan-Mycenaean context, so much so that the saffron flower is depicted on the walls of the Palace of Knossos. In the Bible and precisely in the Song of Songs, saffron is associated with the most aromatic and precious plants that grow in the garden. Also known in India, it is mentioned in the Vedas, among the oldest texts of Brahmanism and is still used by Buddhist monks to dye their robes.
The Greeks, later the Romans and the men of the Middle Ages, called the plant "crocus". Homer in the Iliad indicates the crocus, together with the lotus and the hyacinth, among the flowers of the cloud bed of Zeus, king of Olympus. The Greek doctor Hippocrates praises his pharmacological faculties recommending him against rheumatism, gout and toothache. Galen even prescribes it for all evils. The Romans used it above all in cooking: the Apicius recipes with sauces based on crocus to season fish are famous. The Arabs spread it in Spain ... It is therefore due to the Arabs that the name changed from crocus to saffron during the Middle Ages. The word derives from the Persian "safra" (yellow), [which turned] into the Arabic "za'faràn" and then into the Spanish [azafran]."
Especially in Italy, with the development of the mercantile civilization of the XIII century, saffron was cultivated and traded as a dyeing plant, in particular to color wool, silk [and] linen cloths and was also used in painting. In the Middle Ages, however, the pharmacological use also continued, as an antispasmodic and sedative, against dental pain, insomnia and hysteria. Saffron was considered important for the health of the stomach, spleen, liver, heart. It was even thought that it favoured childbirth, delayed old age and increased amatory skills. Consequently, as well as in various liqueurs, perfumes and cosmetics, saffron was widely used between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance also in the kitchen. Thus she was the queen of spices before other plants spread following the discovery of America.'