Features and uses

Both the area cultivated and the production of L'Aquila Saffron are rather small compared to that of other parts of the world but this saffron deserves the highest consideration because of the bio-agronomic characteristics of its germoplasm and for its culinary/gastronomic characteristics derived from the outstanding organoleptic qualities.

The following chemical analysis was carried out in the Chemical Analysis of Food Products Laboratory, Faculty of Agricultural Science at the University of Milan as part of the "Programma Finalizzato MAF: Italian Officinal Plants".

The chemical analysis of L'Aquila Saffron showed the following composition:

Water: 9-14%
Nitrogenous matter: 11-13%
Volatile oil: 0,3-2%
Fats: 3 - 8%
Sugars: 12 - 15%
Non-nitrogenous substances: 41 - 44%
Cellulose: 4 - 7%
Ash: 4 - 8%

The active principles are represented by crocin (the ester of gentiobiose of crocetin; by hydrolysis it splits into D-glucose and crocetin), picrocrocin and safranal.

Colouring Properties

Crocin and crocetin are responsible for the colouring property of saffron.

The colouring power was determined by means of spectrophotometric absorption at 44nm of a solution of 1% of finely ground stigmas in water/ ethyl alcohol 9 to 1. These are the results of the analysis:

Potere aromatico
Safranal is responsible for the aroma of saffron.

Picrocrocin is a bitter glycoside which in hydrolysis splits into D-glucose and safranal. Safranal is the terpene aldehyde formed during the desiccation and the preservation of the product which contributes, among the volatile constituents, to the quality of the aroma. To assess the aromatic power the content of safranal was ascertained by means of a gas chromatographic analysis after distillation in a current of steam. The mean value is about 4%.

L'Aquila Saffron is a spice which is rich in anti-oxidants and cooking does not alter the characteristics. The antioxidants derive from the crocetin, the crocin and the picrocrocin i.e. from those active principles which give it its colouring power and which belong to the carotenoid family. In saffron the content of carotene is 8% compared to the 0.008% in carrots and is recognised as one of the natural vegetables richest in this substance. To obtain the same levels of carotene in the blood and therefore release the relative anti-oxidant effect derived from 0.5 grams of saffron one would have to eat 300 grams of tomatoes, 200 grams of carrots, 300 grams of peppers and 200 grams of spinach! In general, the antioxidant activity of carotenes, by fighting free radicals, protects against ageing and probably also has an anti-tumoural effect.

There are other valuable elements in saffron like Vitamin B1 (antioxidant and necessary for growth), Vitamin B2 (useful to the cells in the phase of oxygen exchange and to activate the metabolism).

The calorie content of saffron is practically nil as 1 gram of saffron (necessary for preparing 12 plates of "risotto alla Milanese") contains 2.7 calories and therefore 0.225 calories per plate.

The virtues of saffron have been known since ancient times and it can be found among the most used ingredients in the preparation of medications for the plague. The Egyptian pharaohs appreciated its therapeutic value too.

Hypocrite used to prescribe it in poultices to apply to painful areas caused by goitre or rheumatism.
Pliny the Elder realised its therapeutic qualities for ulceration of the stomach, chest, kidneys, liver and lungs; it was also considered helpful for relieving coughs and chest pains, and for its aphrodisiac effect: recent studies have shown that this plant has characteristics similar to an ovary-stimulating hormone, and might be particularly useful in the sexual sphere. It is believed that the aphrodisiac hypothesis, under certain circumstances, is useful to lift the morale and stimulate passion. Therefore, saffron can be considered an aphrodisiac product useful for stimulating the psyche.

The Salerno School attributed saffron with cheering properties which also helped the liver and the limbs.

In the Middle Ages it was used for epilepsy and was defined as an "angelic electuary for the plague". Besides, it was considered a dispenser of happiness so much so that of a merry person it was said: "he's slept on a bag of saffron".

From the 13th century, when city life re-flourished, when traffic increased because of the crusades, when the first embryo of bourgeois society was formed, besides the pleasures of the spirit, the pleasures of the flesh were also justified and gastronomy started courting people's taste and sensitizing their palates.

According to a 16th century doctor, a certain Ortensio Lando, even during Lent, in the city of Taranto one risked measuring more in width than in height because of the bounty of fish cooked with wine and aromatic herbs; the recipe books were shamelessly full of recipes for fish cakes with saffron, squid and octopus stews with walnuts and almonds.

Besides, in the Monastery of Holy Colomba in Perugia an old recipe book dated 1500 and called " Gluttony and Prayer in a Cloister of the late 1500s" was found, where there are many recipes which contained saffron.

As far as the use of saffron in cooking is concerned, there is a clichÈ that needs to be disproved according to which in Medieval times food was very spicy to hide the taste of meat which had gone off. This is not true, as a person who could afford to buy spices, which were a real status symbol, could certainly slaughter more than one cow a day and so had fewer problems with the freshness of their meat than we might have today. Spicing dishes was a show of wealth and therefore of the economic power of the host (feudal lord, squire, bishop or emperor).

To support this theory we have the treatise on domestic morals and economy written towards the end of the 14th century for his fifteen-year-old bride by a certain MÈnagier (that's how he signed his work), a rich and distinct public official of sixty-seven, perhaps a widower, who had a beautiful house in the centre of Paris adorned with tapestries and full of valuable furnishings: "...dishes should be coloured whenever possible: de-boned chicken, filled with a stuffing of meat, eggs and cheese, must first be boiled, then roasted on the spit and brushed with egg yolk and saffron"... cont.

As regards its cosmetic use, already in 2000 B.C. in Crete saffron was used to enhance female beauty and especially women's breasts, which were left bare and supported by gold or silver bodices with their nipples coloured reddish-orange. Saffron was used for colouring the nipple area and the lips.

In Babylonia we find saffron in the development of cosmetics and their link with astrology. It was burnt together with incense and myrrh, in huge, priceless perfume burners which followed the golden altars in processions.

Saffron was very important for the Assyrians as well and the legendry beauty Semiramis used to have it grown in the hanging gardens which Nebuchadnezzar had had built for her.

Cleopatra, in Egypt, much appreciated saffron as a perfume.

In the flourishing cosmetic stores of Jerusalem saffron was much sought after to make the sacred perfumes mainly destined for liturgical use and the powder, together with henna, was used for colouring the face. The scent of saffron was considered holy because of its function as a vehicle for prayer "which rises to heaven flowing on the scented rivers of the essence".

With the ancient Greeks all beauty treatments developed amazingly. Appearance was so stressed that in Athens special magistrates called "Ginecom" fined the women who neglected their clothes and personal appearance. Among the raw materials imported from the nearby oriental civilizations was saffron, mentioned by Teofasto in a study on the preparation of perfumed oils, oils which were highly esteemed because of the aromatherapeutic effect which was attributed to the essence. The two most popular perfumes in Athens both had a saffron base: Susinum (of which Pliny gives us the composition: cinnamon, rose, saffron and myrrh) and Crocinum, made almost completely from saffron

This very Crocinum was imported to Rome (in spite of the edicts which forbade the sale of exotic perfumes) and then produced in great quantities during the Empire. During the Roman Imperial Age saffron took on the role of "status symbol" and, because of its cost, was used exclusively by the very wealthy. Saffron essence was sprinkled in the dining halls, where the guests often reclined on cushions of saffron petals, drinking wine mixed with saffron stigmas, while they were showered with saffron powder. In the spas, the more refined people bathed in water scented with saffron. The Roman Imperial Age represents a magical moment for this mysterious spice, so valuable that it was called "vegetable gold".

The price has always depended on the amount of hard labour that goes into its production and the cost has most probably caused the disappearance of its use in cosmetics.