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Navelli and the Story of Saffron in Abruzzo

I am an English-speaking freelance food writer based in Rome. I love writing articles on various aspects of Italian culture.



Nestled on the edge of a valley in the Abruzzo region sits a small village, buffeted by soft spring and summer winds and warmed by the clear sun from a blue sky. This village is called Navelli and bellow, this settlement lies a flat fertile plain. It's soil and weather are perfect for the cultivation of what’s is considered by many to be the best Saffron available, a rare and fragile crocus flower that grows well at this altitude in the fresh mountain air.

L’Aquila, church of Basilica di San Bernardino.

L’Aquila, church of Basilica di San Bernardino.

History of Saffron in Abruzzo

The earliest record of Saffron cultivation goes back to Bronze Age Santorini now within modern day Greece, where a fresco was found that depicts saffron growers. The ancient Romans also grew saffron but its cultivation faded with the Roman empire only for it to be reintroduced by Moorish settlers into parts of Spain in the 8th Century.

Settlement of the Abruzzo region is extremely ancient. By the 6th Century this part of Italy was a settled area controlled by the Lombards as part of the Duchy of Spoleto, a people that were themselves, descendants of a proto-German tribe,

The city of L’ Aquila was founded in 1254 and by the 12th century it was a center for trade. A key specific agricultural trade,was trade in Saffron. Its first cultivation arrived in Abruzzo via monks of the Dominican order who were familiar with this flower in Spain. They observed how the soil in the valley beside to the village of Navelli allowed pools of water to collect and naturally irrigate the delicate plants after fresh rains.

A Saffron exchange in L’ Aquila quickly developed suppling this spice to the cities of Milan and Venice. It brought prosperity to the region and by the 15th century,the central city of L’ Aquila was at one of its most important periods of its history, the then ruling King Ferdinand I of Naples decreed the right of the city to open its first university which duly opened in 1458.

The expensive Saffron spice and the growth of early printing filled the city with extra finance. These funds were often used to buy off invading armies, notably the invading Spanish Bourbons. But as the city thrived the inhabitants build important churches, notably the Basilica of S. Bernardino which was built in part from these funds. Interestingly the mausoleum of his church was entirely funded by a gentleman named Jacopo Notar Nanni, a native of Civitaretenga, near Navelli, a very successful saffron and wool merchant with expert skills in sheep breeding and this flowers cultivation.

Later in 1513 four German merchants named Tuder, Immoff, Wachter and Munzer visited L'Aquila and bought houses in the city and in turn became citizens.They further developed the saffron exchange by coordinating with traders in Nuremberg in Germany.

Thus Saffron became a sort of currency that carried power and could be used to pay fines and appease invaders.

Ancient Greeks harvesting Saffron.

Ancient Greeks harvesting Saffron.

Crocus sativus

Crocus sativus

An introduction to Saffron

Today saffron Crocus sativus, that only grows at between 350 and1000 meters above sea level is still amongst the most expensive spices on earth, it is an autumn-flowering crocus. Unfortunately imitation or fake saffron is widely available but real (certified) Abruzzo grown Saffron from this area and surrounding region is much prized, especially by chefs, who use the orange coloured stigmas, which collect the pollen, in a number of dishes both for its color and unique flavor. Interestingly it is one of the ingredients used in the production of the fortified wine Vermouth.

Saffron is also used in medicine to treat Asthma and within cosmetics for its skin healing properties.

On a mass production level, the numbers involved to make this spice are mind-boggling. It takes 100,000 saffron flowers to collect just 1kg of the finished product with a price of around £5 to £10 per gram. Technically the flower contains three different chemicals picrocrocin, safranal and crocin, these give the saffron its distinctive smell clour and taste, these compounds can be measured to check that the saffron is genuine. Perhaps this is why it is sometimes called Red Gold.

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Wild Saffron

Wild Saffron


The Navelli Saffron Harvest

The plant is still cultivated and picked carefully with considerable skill by a small band of Navelli villagers. The mineral-rich soil is good for just one season of a crop, before being left fallow for ten years while the cultivation is rotated to another plot. Native Wild boar are a pest as they like to foarage out and eat the growing saffron bulbs, so the land is fenced off and secured. The flowers are harvested over a 15-20 day period mid- to end October or early November with the farmers deciding to exactly when at the last minute. This timing, of course, depends on the weather conditions and the condition of the flowers. Ideally, they are picked early on in the day when the flowers are closed, when the plants are pinched from the ground leaving the flavors and fragrance inside the flower.

After picking by hand the freshly harvested flowers are carefully pinched with the central three spice filled stamen being removed from the flower and dried in small wooden pans over a small fire. The experienced pickers all working in groups fortified by cups of coffee or tea work on large flat harvest tables bundling the tiny spice into small bales laid out on clean dry linen cloths. A reward to the tightly knit family of harvesters is the chance to carefully save a small quantity for personal use and as a safe deposit currency against hard times.

Navelli home of Saffron production in Abruzzo

Navelli home of Saffron production in Abruzzo

The Sagra de Ceci Zafferano Navelli

The Sagra de Ceci Zafferano Navelli


The Sagra de Ceci Zafferano Navelli

An annual Sagra sees a number of dishes offered for sale at a harvest festival in the month of August. Various pasta dishes flavoured with saffron are available and a delicious Chickpea and Saffron stew is known locally as Rattatoile (recipe below)

It has also been made into a potent 35 percent proof spirit know by the brand name Zaff.


Cook Time

Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

20 min

30 min

50 min

feeds six persons



  1. In the evening before the day you cook, soak the chickpeas in cold water. In the morning, cook them adding in a pinch of salt.
  2. While the chickpeas cook, clean and cut the Bieta (a floppy green vegetable similar to spinach) leaves into pieces, cut the bacon and cook it with the other ingredients, adding a drop of water
  3. After finishing the chickpeas, combine into one pan and let it marinate in the flavour. Add saffron and serve. A Great plate served hot or cold.


  • 400 gr chickpeas, raw
  • 100 gr pork bacon, chopped and cubed
  • 300 grams bieta, (a spinach like floppy green leaf vegetable
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 chives, chopped
  • 1 clove of garli, chopped
  • 1 saffron, sachet of
  • 1 oil and salt, to taste

I'm just mad about Saffron, Saffron's mad about me

— from the song "Mellow yellow" by Donovan.

© 2017 Adele Barattelli

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