The whole world knows that it is impossible to excise Italy from its culinary traditions. Italians socialize over food, and live their town’s traditions through culinary festivals.
People are often surprised to learn that Italy is one of the world’s major producers of saffron, after countries such as Iran, Spain, and India. Italian saffron comes from Sardegna, Abruzzo, and now the Umbrian town of Cittá della Pieve which several years ago had a rebirth in saffron production.
Every October the town’s saffron consortium puts on a wonderful sagra (festival) to celebrate the harvest. On a gorgeous fall day there’s nothing more enjoyable than gathering the beautiful purple crocus flowers and removing the scarlet stigmas that once dried become saffron. As you work and see just how labor- intensive this process is you soon understand why saffron is the world’s most expensive spice!
One of Umbria’s most popular fall culinary festivals is the Città di Pieve’s Festa dello Zafferano. Strolling this northern Umbrian town during the Festa dello Zafferano, visitors pass shops with baskets of lilac crocus petals out front, zafferano packets with Perugino images, native Renaissance master, inside.
During this festival, lilac sprays of crocus flowers decorate a textile shop window, toy shop entrances and the gelaterie feature ice-creams and yogurts with saffron. At Piazza Matteoti, young chef Vito teaches a cooking class with, of course, saffron starring in every dish. Visitors can join in the tastings post-class: bright yellow risotto in which Vito doesn’t spare the saffron, a saffron bread and a dessert starring saffron.
Just around the corner, entering under the whimsically frescoed portico of the elegant Palazzo della Corgna, you’ll find the embroidery work of the local women, including textiles of yellow hues, dyed with saffron. In the covered market area, you’ll see saffron-dyed candles and even creams and soaps with saffron. At this Mostra Mercato Zafferano (saffron show and market), everyone tries the panforte, the famous Sienese area fruitcake, with saffron and perhaps a sip of grappa allo zafferano. At festival founder Alessandro’s stand, visitors taste his olive oil and honey with his saffron. Alessandro explains to many of the inquisitive visitors that 9,000 square feet of crocus cultivation yield just approximately 1 pound of saffron. Not surprisingly, most cultivators of the crocus sativus cultivate other crops as well. At a nearby stand, one can savor the saffron cheeses or Monica’s collection of gelatins seasoned with saffron (perfect on that cheese!). Crocus plants are for sale, as well as the bulbs.
Down the road tables quickly fill in the brick-vaulted ancient Taverna della Rocca, a young volunteer staff serving dish after dish — each course highlighted with saffron — as two young musicians entertained the sold-out crowd.
The second day of the festival gran finale begins with painting workshops (paints made with saffron), a course in the dyeing of cloth with saffron, and field trips to the crocus fields for the gathering of the flowers, then the drying of the petals. Guided art tours through the town would focus on “the saffron hues in Perugino’s Città della Pieve masterpieces.”
Art linked to cuisine: You’re in Italy.
Easy saffron risotto
- 6 1/3 oz of rice — Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons minced onion
- 1 1/4 pint broth
- saffron (one tiny paper bag)
- 1 tablespoon of butter
- 2 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Put the oil into a pan and fry the onion until it becomes transparent.
- Add the rice and fry it, always stirring, for 3 or 4 minutes. Add a few spoonfuls of broth. Mix well and add more broth.
- Half cover the pan and let it cook, stirring and adding broth once in a while.
- When it’s done (try it, it has to be cooked but not too soft, al dente), turn off the gas, add the saffron, the butter and the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Mix it vigorously and close the pan, letting it rest for a couple of minutes.
- Serve it as a first course or as a side.