Saffron: how to recognize the “true” Red Gold


The name saffron comes from the Arabic za῾farān. It is obtained from the trifid stigma of Crocus sativus, a plant of the Iridaceae family, cultivated in Asia Minor and in some countries of the Mediterranean basin, including Italy. True saffron is considered the red gold, for its sensory characteristics and antioxidant organoleptic peculiarities.
The real saffron plant grows to 20-30 cm and gives up to four fruits, each with three stigmas. The stems and stigmas are harvested and dried to be used mainly in the kitchen, are harvested by hand, gently, not to spoil them. For a kilo of spice you need about one hundred and fifty thousand / one hundred and eighty thousand flowers. Depending on the variety of bulbs and climates, the flowers are harvested between October and November.


In Italy saffron is produced in different regions, with the recognition of protected designation of origin for saffron from L’Aquila (Abruzzo, province of L’Aquila), saffron from Sardinia (province of Medio Campidano) and saffron from San Gimignano (Tuscany, province of Siena), is also grown in Montegiorgio, Marche, Cascia and Città della Pieve, Umbria and only recently was born a beautiful reality in the province of Como where the air of the lake, a sunny hill and the ideal soil rich in minerals have given reason to the entrepreneurial intuition of Rolando Germani who, for a combination of factors, including the choice of bulbs of excellence and a cultivation in full respect of nature without the use of additives or chemicals, has obtained a very special result with the first harvest of Saffron Hill of Gold. Mr Germani definitely loves excellence and for this reason in an interview he tells us all the secrets of this precious spice.

Saffron is often “confused” with other spices, what are the differences? What are the spices that too often become complicit in unfair commercial practices?
It is estimated that 70-80 percent of the saffron consumed in Italy is imported and sold as domestic saffron. All this happens without the consumer’s knowledge. Around 180 tonnes of saffron are produced worldwide every year. Ninety per cent of them come from Iran, but also from India, Greece, Morocco and Spain. Italy produces about 500 kg. It is more difficult to adulterate the red filament, while the powder can be mixed with other less valuable spices. The risk of finding counterfeit saffron on the market is very high, in fact, the European Commission estimates that the counterfeiting of spices is among the ten food products most at risk of fraud and thus ranks eighth.
As we said, the product most at risk of fraud is powder because it can be mixed with other parts of the plant or with different plants such as turmeric, safflower or “false saffron”, calendula and with minerals or synthetic dyes. It is less easy to adulterate saffron into threads, which cannot be mixed with other spices, plants or parts of plants. This is commercial fraud when the valuable product is mixed with cheaper components, although the addition of synthetic dyes such as tartrazine should not be overlooked. The reason for this is above all economic, since turmeric costs ten times less.

Risotto alla milanese could never have the same taste with saffron substitutes, what is the component in terms of taste that distinguishes it?
Pure saffron differs from fake saffron in its intense and aromatic flavour, but also in the amber colour that it gives to risotto. When it is truly prized, spices take on value in the dish without the need to use heavy condiments such as butter and oil. Finally, the scent of risotto made with authentic saffron is truly unique because it reveals the heart of saffron.

Italian saffron seems to be among the best in the world, do you find it?
The red gold of Sardinia and Abruzzo represents one of the excellences of our country and is renowned throughout the world. It is also interesting to note that laboratory analyses show that saffron made in Italy is richer in safranal and crocinas than abroad. These two elements are fundamental to give flavour to the spice, but they are also rich in beneficial health effects such as anti-radical action and improved mood.

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