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You might enjoy the Italian perspective on this ancient spice = ( ZAFIRANO , ZAFARAN )
Valentino Di Marzio is a small factory owner who is president of the saffron growers cooperative in Navelli.
NAVELLI, Italy — The families in this medieval town are so devoted to saffron, the precious spice they painstakingly cultivate and process by hand, that they stash the dried flower stigmas it comes from in the safest, driest place in the house: the matriarch’s wardrobe.

David Yoder for The New York Times
The tradition of cultivating saffron in Navelli, alive since the 13th century, is now threatened by global competition, an aging population, and the powerful earthquake in 2009 that disrupted the networks that got the spice to the global market.
“By tradition we don’t eat it — it has always been what buys our children’s shoes,” said Agnese Di Iorio, 47, at a room in a former convent where Navelli’s saffron growers meet most nights to package their product.
Instead, L’Aquila Saffron, or Zafferano Dell’Aquila, named for the region to which this village belongs, was carted away by spice traders in the Middle Ages and is now doled out in judicious pinches at upscale restaurants in Italy and abroad, a central ingredient of dishes like risotto Milanese.
The famed New York chef Mario Batali calls L’Aquila’s saffron “the best saffron in Italy.” In 2005, saffron grown here was awarded Italy’s “protected product” status, like Parmigiano-Reggiano and prosciutto di Parma, acknowledging its extraordinary culinary standing.
But for the 97 families here who cultivate saffron — many have for generations — the spice means money and labor, helping them earn an extra $5,000 to $10,000 a year.
It is grown in small plots of land and harvested before dawn each fall. But since saffron season is so brief, less than two months from planting to harvest, growing it is no one’s primary occupation.
“There is a saying here that at Christmas Mass you know who had a good season — you can smell it in their overcoats,” Sandra Cantalini, who comes from a family of longtime growers, said of the longstanding practice of storing the dried saffron stigmas in a closet or armoire.
But the tradition of cultivating saffron here, alive since the 13th century, is threatened by competition from cheaper products from places like Spain and India, an aging population whose children show little interest in the work, and most recently a powerful earthquake in April 2009 that disrupted the small, informal local networks that got the precious powder out of the wardrobes of Navelli and on to the global market.
The quake severely damaged the town center of Navelli’s primary saffron-growing hamlet, Civitaretenga, which is now partly off limits because so many of its ancient buildings were cracked or damaged.
“The clock tower fell; it was gone just like that, ” said Valentino Di Marzio, a professorial-looking small-factory owner who is president of the saffron growers cooperative. “It was a miracle that no one was killed.”
Though they can no longer buy and sell the spice at the market, the cooperative’s members, whose day jobs include electrician, seamstress, store owner and housewife, still transform the bright orange stigmas of a fussy purple crocus into packets of spice. They work in a room of a former convent that is owned by the local government, which also helped them buy a powder packaging machine for about $12,000.
Until 2004, the cooperative sealed the bags with a hot iron.
Saffron, thought by many historians to have originated in the Middle East, has been a highly prized spice since at least the seventh century B.C. and was also used as an ingredient in medicines, dyes and perfumes. It is now grown in a wide variety of countries, including India, Iran, Morocco, Spain, Greece and Italy. The different variants have diverse aroma and taste.
It is highly labor intensive to produce, sold at up over $300 per ounce. It takes 4,000 flowers to make an ounce of powder, though many chefs prefer to use the stigmas, called threads, whole.
Pliny described saffron smuggling in the first century A.D. Today, before large purchases, it is often lab tested to verify that it contains no floral debris or artificial fillers, and to measure the content of the molecules that give the spice its flavor, aroma and color.
Here in Navelli, Mr. Di Marzio, the cooperative’s president, described his devotion to the spice as a “passion.” He added, “I inherited this knowledge from my father so I found myself with this obligation.”
In the off-season, the families tend to their bulbs and prepare the fields with sheep manure. The bulbs are planted in August and produce flowers in October, although the exact moment depends on the weather. When the flowers blossom, they must be picked before dawn, while they are closed, so as not to lose any of the stigma’s powder.
Each day, after picking, the orange, red-topped filaments must be separated out by hand; they are immediately dried over a fire of neutral wood, like almond or oak, that does not impart its flavor to the product.
“You need the whole family to help because one or two people is not enough to do this work,” said Ms. Cantalini, in striped T-shirt and jeans. “For 15 days, you’re up before the sun rises and you’re really hustling for two hours.”
Once the stigmas are dried, they are kept in the wardrobes during the year and brought to the former convent several nights a week, where the cooperative packages the saffron to fill orders. Some are sold whole in little glass jars and some are hand ground into powder. A small field yields only about a pound and a half, but that can bring a family almost $8,000.
To perpetuate the tradition among Navelli’s youth, Giovanina Sarra, 68, who owns a small bed-and-breakfast and is in charge of the cooperative’s global distribution, organizes saffron-themed art competitions for toddlers and essay contests about saffron for teenagers. But the town’s youth seems mostly non-committal.
“I’ve helped, but I don’t know if I’ll do it when I’m older,” said Simone Di Perzio, 15, in a bright yellow tracksuit, at the convent.
Yet Ms. Sarra, who has been harvesting saffron since she was 3, is optimistic. In addition to the 97 members of the cooperative who can use the special product designation now, there are 10 applications pending. “We need to see they are good people, will respect the rules and take our strict rules seriously,” she said.

Annette Melikian

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