Saffron, the dried red stigma of the crocus sativus, is the world's most expensive spice. It takes up to 75,000 flowers--and hours of back-breaking labor-- to produce one pound of the spice.
Roughly 90 percent of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran, much of it in the impoverished province of South Khorasan near the Afghan border. In 2009 the Iran Chamber of Commerce boasted of $92 million in exports, mostly to Spain—itself a leading exporter of the spice—as well as the United Arab Emirates, India and Saudi Arabia.
But tiny pockets of saffron pop up in surprising places—like Italian armoires. In Growers Feel the Squeeze to Sell a Pinch of Saffron (The New York Times, May 13, 2010, p. A8) Elisabeth Rosenthal describes the struggle of 97 families in the hamlet of Civitaretenga near Navelli, where saffron has been grown since the 13th century, to cultivate the costly spice.
“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,” writes Rosenthal. Sandra Cantalini, whose entire family helps with the harvest, says, “For 15 days you’re up before the sun rises and really hustling for two hours.”
After harvesting, the red stigma are dried “over a fire of neutral wood, like almond or oak” and then stashed in a closet or wardrobe until the spice is packaged in a local convent. Ms. Catalini observes that residents know who’s had a successful season by the smell of the overcoats at Christmas Mass.
For two weeks of back-breaking labor, each family brings in an extra $5,000 to $10,000 a year—enough to buy children’s shoes and other necessities—but difficulties are rife. The devastating 2009 earthquake that destroyed the town’s clock tower also “disrupted the networks that got the spice to the global market.” Young people are less interested in growing saffron, while global competition from Iran and other countries has eroded prices.
But chefs like Mario Batali praise L’Aquila Saffron, named for the region in which Civitaretenga lies, as “the best saffron in Italy. It is known for its "high safranal and crocin content,...unusually pungent aroma, and intense color." In 2005 it was granted “protected product” status, in honor of its culinary excellence—and perhaps, its rarity.