There is a cave in Iraq with wall paintings dating from 50,000 years ago. Saffron has been identified as one of the pigments used in the paintings. The Sumerians used saffron for its medicinal properties. The spice was well known in ancient India and China but the Greeks seem to have been the first to cultivate it. There is a Minoan fresco on the Greek island of Santorini depicting the harvesting of the saffron plant. Cleopatra is said to have used a saffron wash to keep her skin clear and blemish-free. The town of Saffron Walden in England gained its name from the saffron trade. Nowadays saffron is produced and used all over the world and is grown commercially in Tunisia, Afghanistan, Spain, Italy and many other countries. But what exactly is saffron apart from the worlds most expensive spice?

Saffron comes from the flower of the saffron crocus (crocus sativus), a native of Asia but which quickly spread in ancient times to the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions. The Arabs, apart from giving it its name, zafaran (meaning yellow), brought it to Spain and from there it spread to Italy and other European countries. The saffron crocus (which flowers in October/November, unlike garden crocuses) is still cultivated in various parts of Italy, but on the Altopiano di Navelli, in the LAquila region an hours drive from Rome, it has found the ideal microclimate; and it is here that saffron considered by some the finest quality in the world is produced. The quality is such that it has gained the DOP (denominazione dorigine protetta) classification from the European Union.

The growing season begins in August when the flowers have withered and the corms (underground stems) are lifted to be dried out and sorted. They are then replanted and the new cycle of growth begins. Flowers begin to blossom around the end of October and the harvest continues into early November. The gathering and processing of the flowers is in the hands of local families. Most families belong to the cooperative Altopiano Navelli based in Civitaretenga and this organisation concerns itself with the quality control and marketing of the final product.

Saffron consists of the dried stigmas (female reproductive organs) of the crocus. The preferably unopened flower buds are picked by hand during the first two hours after dawn; if the sun shines the flowers open and the collecting and processing become much more difficult. At about 09.00 the collected flowers are carried home and the tricky work of sorting begins. The workers sit around a table and the collected flowers are piled in the middle. Each worker painstakingly separates the stigmas and discards the rest of the flower. There was a time when the anthers (male reproductive organs) were also separated and used to produce a yellow dye but this practice has been abandoned since the advent of artificial dyes has rendered the work unprofitable.

When the work of separation is over, which can be very late in the evening or even after midnight if the crop was a good one, the stigmas are suspended in a flour sieve over the hot coals of a fire made from oak or almond tree wood. This delicate and carefully controlled drying process removes about 90 per cent of the moisture and the saffron is then taken to the cooperative headquarters to be packaged. Some of it is powdered and sold in tiny envelopes containing 0.1 g enough for a saffron risotto of three or four servings whilst the rest is packaged as whole stigmas in jars containing 1 g. The fact that a gram of pure saffron from LAquila (the result of processing 250 flowers) costs anything up to 18 in the shops explains why it has the reputation of being the most expensive spice in the world. (The price of gold in November has been hovering around ?14-15 per gram.) A days labour can bring in over 100 g of saffron so the producers earn a tidy sum over the two weeks of backbreaking work. But then the labour is over until the next season so most of the workers need other regular employment as well.

What is saffron used for? In ancient times it was employed in all kinds of medical remedies but nowadays its use is mainly culinary. Risotto alla Milanese, with its wonderful golden colour and elusive flavour, is famous, but there are many other delicacies to be tried. Saffron cake, which is a kind of sweetened bread with dried fruits and saffron, is a great favourite in addition to various pasta, roast meat and pie recipes.

Dont be put off using saffron because of its price. Saffron from LAquila is special and very expensive but Spanish, Greek and Tunisian saffron cost much less and it would probably take a real expert to tell the difference.