Tag Archives: saffron from L’aquila

Navelli, The Town That Saffron Built

Red gold, yellow joy, and what makes Milan’s most famous rice dish so special

Or Saffron Seduction

If you drive from Sulmona to L’Aquila, chances are you’ll pass through the town of Navelli, the historic heart of saffron country in the high rising around the Appennines largest mountain: Gran Sasso. Centuries as the source of some of Europe’s most prized saffron helped build L’Aquila into one of Italy most beautiful but lesser known art cities. L’Aquila is still beautiful today, although devastated and off-limits from the earthquake 18 months ago. Despite this tradition, the hair-thin red threads (the colour changes to yellow in food and dies) have only recently made it into the local culinary culture because it was too expensive for its’ growers to eat – you didn’t eat your livelyhood in these breathtaking but cold mountain valleys.

Some experts say that the variety of bulbs used, soil and specific climate help produce some of the best saffron in the world. At least everyone in Abruzzo says will tell you that – and so would Remy, the mouse chef from the movie Ratatouille if he wasn’t a fictional cartoon character.

Lo Zafferano is still probably the world’s most expensive spice, but it’s now within reach of most of our pocketbooks; the tenth of a gram (a tenth the weight of a paperclip) of powdered Navelli saffron needed for the recipe below can be yours for around ten euros if bought in locally here in L’Aquila or the surrounding midieval castle towns. If it costs much less than that, you know it’s fake.

Given this historical importance the town of Navelli – were my mother-in-law is from and where we still spend much of our summers – it’s not surprising that it’s one of the two local products featured in Navelli’s sagra (local agricultural feast). The other food is the town’s tiny but delicous mountain ceci (chick peas).

Navelli’s Pro Loco association (http://www.prolocodinavelli.it/ ) has been putting on the Sagra dei Ceci e dello Zafferano one the first weekend after Ferragosto (August 15th) for 33 years, even in the aftermath of earthquakes. And the Palio dei Asini, a send-up of Siena’s Palio where untrained donkeys run instead of trained racehorses has been a natural satirical draw for thirty years. My niece was part of the trio – boy, girl and donkey – that won this year.

While saffron helped build L’Aquila and many of internal Abruzzo’s most beautiful cities and towns, the locals never dreamt of eating it. So Italy’s the most famous saffron dish comes from the northern city of Milan. The following recipe, the one used at the Navelli’s “sagra”, is a gem for it’s simplicity and how it draws out the best from it’s ingredients.

Risotto alla Milanese – Risotto allo zafferano.


Risotto allo zafferano (otherwise know as Risotto alla Milanese)
500 g of rice (a little less than half a pound)
100 g of butter (about a quarter pound
1-fifth of a white onion.
50 g parmigiano reggiano, grano padano or another classic Italian grated cheese
1 envelope of saffron from L’Aquila (with a tenth of a gram of pure saffron)
a half pot of broth broth

Dice the onion and simmer in a spoonful of butter until lightly golden, then add the rise and stir continuously as you slowly add broth. In the meantime mix the saffron in a small cup of broth. When the rice is almost done (that is, the broth is almost entirely absorbed by the rice), add the remaining butter and pour in the saffron-broth mix. Sprinkle the parmesan on top just before serving. My wife Silvia’s trick is to add a tablespoon full of the saffron liquor that Navelli’s saffron cooperative sells.

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com


This recipe was also included with four others on a guest post promoting George Clooney’s recent move “The American”, set mostly in some of the most beautiful corners of Abruzzo.

Saffron on FoodistaSaffron

Arborio Rice



Saffron, Pancetta and Ricotta – Oh My!

It is Monday and the Saffron and Chick Pea feast is over. But just for this year. The Earthquake and the threat of rain (just a few drops) kept a few people away, but throngs of people came for the Palio degli Asini (a donkey race created as a send-up of the famous Palio di Siena horse race in that beautiful Tuscan hill-town), and, of course, for the saffron and chick pea based dishes.
This year I stuck to the saffron-based foods, having had a summer full of chick pea based dishes at my mother-in-law’s. The saffron supplì, fried balls of saffron rice, were tasty. The risotto alla milanese (rice dish made by cooking in broth and saffron) was a bit paler and more liquid than previous years.
But despite being cooked in a festival camp the Penne allo Zafferano was amazing. Once again the true Italian cooking secrets of simplicity and access to amazing ingredients won out against the adversity of mass-production. Pennette, short straight pasta similar to maccheroni were covered with a blend of fresh local ricotta cheese and saffron and simmered pancetta (similar to bacon, salt-cured but not smoked).
Great food.
On a side note, my niece daughter was in the Palio degli Asini, the donkey race that rivals the saffron as an attraction. Six teams, each with a donkey, a rider and a page (each one a boy-girl team) raced four times around a track traced out more by the crowds of laughing spectators than the plastic tape. Her donkey broke away from the pack in the last lap, only to stop a yard before the finish line and not budge. Then another did the same, stopping next to theirs, then a third, this time wandering over the finish line.
Gaia and Mario at the end of the Palio degli Asini
My niece’s ass came in second. And wee all won. Especially those of us who had the penne allo zafferano.
Gaia Palio 3
Mark your calendar for the first full weekend after the Ferragosto holiday (August 15th). See you there.