The history of Saffron

Saffron, the oldest and most important
flower for humanity and our country

The fascinating history of saffron runs parallel to that of the great historical milestones up to our days...

An ancient flower...

The culture of the purple Crocus flower Crocus Sativus, a plant of the Iridaceae family – already mentioned in an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1550 B.C. – has been known since ancient times. Virgil, Pliny and other classical historians often mention it in their works, while Ovid, a Latin poet from Sulmona [43 B.C.] and author of the Metamorphoses, even mentions it at the origins of the Fables, as he speaks of the love between Crocus and Smilace, both transformed by Nubis into the flower that took his name.

Mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, Saffron served as bedding for Zeus, while ancient writers relate that the Romans dissolved it in wine to sprinkle it in theatres, on pyres, in thalami and in hair. It is also said that the Romans themselves used its flowers to cover the streets as princes and emperors passed by, and legend has it that Isocrates used to perfume the pillows of his bed with saffron before going to bed.

There is great disagreement between the various writers who have been interested in its origin: it is now established that saffron came to us from Asia Minor where it was extensively cultivated in Cilicia, Barbaria, and Stria. As a matter of fact, Scano writes that the Sidonians and Styrians used to use it to dye brides’ veils yellow and that priests and sacrificers used to encircle their heads with Saffron flowers during propitiatory rites and religious ceremonies.

From Asia, Crocus cultivation spread to Tunisia, Greece and most of North Africa, thus giving rise to a large export trade

la storia dello zafferano
i nomi dello zafferano

All the names of Saffron

In the 7th century, it was the Arabs who introduced saffron to Europe via Spain, where it is still widely cultivated today, although some believe it was brought to Spain by the Phoenicians, who at that time enjoyed a kind of monopoly in the trade. The Spanish name Azafràn derives from the Arabic name Al Zafaran, still in use in the Iberian Peninsula and the Hispanic-American Republics, while in the rest of the world the Persian name Zaafran is still used, more or less modified.

Despite the interest of agronomists, the year of the introduction of saffron culture in Italy has never been precise. In fact, Pliny the Second in his De Croci cultu asks:


“Who, therefore, first brought
the seeds of the foreign harvest to us,
and when the use of them became widespread, is unknown.”

i nomi dello zafferano

Abruzzo Saffron

During the first half of the 13th century, a Dominican from the Santucci family of Navelli, in the province of L’Aquila, was a great enthusiast of farming techniques and practices.

His passion for the small saffron plant, which had already been extensively cultivated in Spain for some time, led Santucci to carefully study all its cultivation requirements and the soil typicality where it could best germinate.

In fact, not long afterwards, on the occasion of a licence granted to him, as it seems, for health reasons, he clandestinely transported a quantity of Crocus bulbs to Navelli in order to experiment with their cultivation, despite the very strict laws of the time which provided for prison or even death for anyone attempting to smuggle Saffron out of Spain.

Con le cognizioni acquisite in Spagna il

With the knowledge he had acquired in Spain, the Dominican Father worked hard to cultivate it, certain of happy results. His hope was not in vain as the soils and microclimate of the L’Aquila area responded well to the cultivation of the precious Crocus. So much so, in fact, that the Abruzzo product turned out to be far superior to the Spanish one, and even today this is still reflected in the current assessment by leading scholars, who consider L’Aquila saffron to be the best in the world.

Soon, from Navelli, the cultivation of saffron spread successfully throughout the L’Aquila area and the notable families of the time managed to trade over 20,000 pounds of saffron a year. Later, the culture of Crocus Sativus also spread to the fertile valley of Sulmona where it took the name Crocus Sulmonensis.

Lo Zafferano Abruzzese
Risotto allo Zafferano

The history of saffron Risotto

Throughout history, saffron had the most diverse uses; at first it was used as a dye for dyeing silks for the upper classes or for painting; in fact, during the Renaissance, it became popular, especially in Italy, to mix it with the powders of frescoes to give colours a particular luminance, but later it was used for a wide variety of purposes.

As a medicinal substance, the old saffron makers claimed it was as soothing as opium and as exciting as wine, but it was also recommended as a mild analgesic, through gum rubs, for teething pains and in moderate doses as an appetite stimulant. It was also used as a soother for spasms and in cosmetics for making skin powders, creams and oils.

Even today, saffron continues to be used in the cosmetics industry to make natural products.

When saffron became part of the household economy, it became a useful and pleasant ingredient for food and drink, adapting its bright golden colour and exceptional fragrance to confectionery, pasta, cheese and rice, from which one of Italy’s best-known recipes was born: “Risotto allo Zafferano” – Saffron Risotto.

Risotto allo Zafferano

In Milan towards the end of the 14th century, work was in progress to build the Duomo. A certain Valerio of Flanders, a Belgian master glazier, commissioned to make some stained-glass windows, had brought to Milan the most talented of his disciples together with a young man of outstanding skill, nicknamed “Zafferano” because of his habit of adding a pinch of saffron to the prepared mixture of colours so that they would be brighter.

As the Master continued to work, he used to tease him that sooner or later he would end up putting saffron in the rice as well.


The young man, after years of teasing, on the day of the festivities planned for the wedding of the Master’s daughter, decided to come up with a joke and with the complicity of the cook, coloured the risotto prepared for the wedding meal with yellow powder. At the sight of the dish, the Master’s astonishment was great, but in order not to fall into ridicule, he immediately stepped forward to taste the unusual yellow rice. One by one, all the diners followed suit and in the blink of an eye consumed the eccentric dish in its entirety and with good taste.

To “Zafferano” the hoax didn’t turn out so well, but he unwittingly gave birth to one of Italy’s most extraordinary gastronomic recipes.”

Risotto allo Zafferano la storia
The story

In 1890…

…in the L’Aquila area, saffron was cultivated in as many as twenty-four municipalities with great industriousness and profit.

At the end of the 19th century, out of a total of 500 hectares of land cultivated with saffron, the quantity of the harvest reached almost four and a half tonnes, but in the years that followed, the cultivation of the Aquilan Crocus increasingly declined and in recent decades, unfortunately, it has been reduced to an almost insignificant crop.

Several times this phenomenon has attracted the attention of illustrious writers and journalists who have tried to identify its causes, but only infinity of beautiful and poetic things have been written about it, without ever arriving at anything concrete concerning the complex causes of the decline of saffron cultivation in Abruzzo.

Undoubtedly, the lack of labour, caused by intense emigration in the agricultural field, was the decisive aspect most affected by L’Aquila’s saffron culture.

Moreover, the antagonism of the foreign product and the inadequate trade were further causes of the decline of the Abruzzi saffron industry, which should never have had to fear competition from other producing countries, having always been distinguished by the renowned quality of its product, which found a favourable climate and terrain in Abruzzi.

Today, 70-80 kg of saffron are produced in the L’Aquila area thanks to the labourers of the land who, with tenacious effort, extract a much sought-after product from the crop.

The story