Dante Santavicca and his son Stefano are slowly moving along the rows dotted with small plants plucking delicate lilac buds, one by one, and gently placing them in baskets. It is saffron harvest time! I came to the Navelli Valley to see how one of the world’s most costly spices, saffron from Abruzzo, is harvested.
The flowers of Crocus sativus, commonly known as saffron crocus, are harvested mid- to end October but it is not easy to know in advance the precise day. The growers watch the weather and the buds closely not to miss the right time. The precious blossoms are harvested early in the morning while they are still closed. The same day the crimson red threads are extracted and left to dry. 150 crocus flowers yield one gram of dry spice.
The saffron of Navelli is highly prized for its zesty aroma and intense crimson colour and has been assigned the D.O.P (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) classification, which means a protected designation of origin and guarantees the highest quality. Only twelve local families keep the centuries-old tradition cultivating the precious flower on ten hectares. Saffron has been cultivated here since Middle Age and little has changed in its production: planting and harvesting are still done by hand.
Saffron spice is often called “red gold” as it commands high prices. The producers in Abruzzo sell a gram of dry saffron for €18 but it is not the money that drives the farmers like Dante and Stefano. It is passion and love of the local traditions that keep them tending those rows of delicate crocus flowers.
…Dante Santavicca tells me that this year wild boar destroyed a large part of their saffron plantation, so the harvest will not be great. He gave me a small basket and I follow neat rows plucking beautiful buds and smiling, thinking that this must be one of the most beautiful jobs in the world. It is eight in the morning and the sun is slowly rising above the mountains warming up my hands. After 20 minutes of bending in half over the plants, I am starting to feel aching in my back and my smile is not so wide any more. There are still many rows to cover and thousands of flowers to pick. The harvest continues for several days as more buds pop out. Then there are hours of plucking the thin fragile stigmas. It might be a beautiful job but it is also one of the hardest, so it is worth every cent that gourmands across the globe pay for the saffron spice.
Every year, in late October, the saffron harvest festival “Le vie dello zafferano” is organised in the small village of San Pio delle Camere where visitors can taste traditional dishes made with the precious spice and participate in the harvest.