Saffron Roads of Sardinia: the quest for red gold

Mara Noveni | Live the World

November 23, 2022

I have already written in the past about some fantastic gastronomic excellences typical of Sardinia, such as myrtle, lobster and wine. Today, I will tell you about the quest for red gold, and I will make you discover another face of this wonderful land. I will tell you all the secrets of Saffron Roads of Sardinia.  The red gold of Sardinia, saffron, is one of the best known and most loved spices in Italy and the world. This spice is obtained from the pistils of Crocus sativus after its flowering, when the saffron fields are coloured purple and red, creating wonderful scenery, and the scent of this spice pervades the air. 

© Pixabay / Michael Schwarzenberger

Origins and legend

It is an ancient spice, already known in the time of the Egyptians. In the beginning, it was used only to dye fabrics and make perfumes and ointments, but, once its taste and the beneficial effects on health were discovered, it became a prized ingredient in the kitchen. Saffron, also called the spice of kings, costs twice as much as gold. The plant of the Iridaceae family is grown mainly in Asia Minor but also in many Mediterranean countries. According to Greek mythology, the beautiful Crocus fell in love with the nymph Smilace, a favourite of God Hermes. Out of jealousy, God transformed Crocus into a bulb, precisely the bulb of Crocus from which saffron derives.

© Pixabay / Cocolate66

The saffron of Sardinia

Sixty percent of the saffron production in Italy comes from Sardinia. Harvesting takes place when the flowers are in their full development. In this period, it is possible to witness a marvel of nature, especially in the Medio Campidano area, in southern Sardinia, between San Gavino Monreale, Turri and Villanovafranca.

It is a spectacle of nature that attracts thousands of tourists, photography enthusiasts, and gourmets to photograph the colorful fields or taste saffron-flavoured dishes every year. Saffron produced along the Saffron Roads of Sardinia has a high coloring power, therapeutic effects and flavoring properties. San Gavino Monreale is the largest of the three Sardinian saffron villages, although Villanovafranca is the most famous from a tourist point of view. In fact, there are important Nuragic remains on its territory, such as the Su Mulinu Nuraghe. Here, the only intact Nuragic altar from the early Iron Age was found.

© Mara Noveni

The benefits

San Gavino'S saffron has an incredible aroma and can flavor first and second courses, desserts and liqueurs. Its organoleptic properties classify it as a unique product in the world, ruby red in color, with an intense aroma. This unique spice contains three very important active ingredients: crocin, (which gives the classic yellow color when cooked, and which functionally protects cells and prevents the onset of tumors). picrocrocin (which gives the intense flavor) and safranal (which gives an incredible and unique scent).

Many beneficial properties have been recognized in San Gavino's saffron, such as antidepressant, anti-stress, memory enhancer, digestive system regulator, metabolism accelerator, anti-inflammatory and aphrodisiac.

© Pixabay / salfree

Harvesting of saffron

Since 1500, the harvest of Sardinian saffron has been carried out completely by hand. The flowers should be harvested early in the morning, to prevent bad weather from ruining them. The saffron harvesting period lasts from 15 to 20 days and takes place between the second half of October and the first half of November.

The harvest consists of cutting the flower in the part under the glass, paying attention to avoid sudden movements that can damage the flower and the precious pistils. Once collected, the flowers are placed in baskets to be subsequently transported to the transformation laboratory, where the flower's cleaning phase takes place.

© iStock / Petar Bonev

The cleaning

During the cleaning operation, the stigmas are separated from the flower. To make the final product very pure, it is necessary to completely eliminate the white part that holds the three stigmas of the flower together. The stigmas must be touched very little to avoid damaging them. A very experienced cleaner can clean an average of 5-600 flowers, which is about 5-6 grams of the final product.

© iStock / Petar Bonev

The drying

For the drying phase, the saffron stigmas are placed well spaced on a plate and subjected to drying. The plate is brought close to mild heat sources (sun, fireplace or radiator) so that drying occurs constantly and progressively. The drying must occur at a temperature between 35 and 45 degrees Celsius and causes a weight loss of about 1/5 compared to the original weight.

For use, the dried threads must be toasted briefly, and then crushed with a spoon to be reduced to powder and added to the food during cooking. Alternatively, the dried pistils can be placed in cold water, in order to release the color and flavor.

© Pixabay / Ulrike Leone

A special Sardinian recipe: malloreddus sausage and saffron

It is one of the most classic dishes of Sardinian cuisine, consisting of Sardinian dumplings (malloreddus), a typical fresh Sardinian sausage and, of course, the saffron to color and perfume this tasty dish.

© Mara Noveni

If you wonder how to prepare it, the recipe is very easy. In a large pan, sauté garlic, oil and chilli. Peel the fresh sausage and cut into small pieces, add to the pan and deglaze with the wine. Salt to taste and cook for about 15 minutes. Cook the Sardinian dumplings in abundant salted water, drain and add them to the pan, stirring. Add the saffron dissolved in a tablespoon of the pasta cooking water. Sprinkle with grated cheese and serve.

Places to visit around 

When you are in San Gavino for a tour on the Saffron Roads, I recommend that you spend some time and visit the nearby places and villages. One such place is Sardara, where the beautiful ruins of the Castle of Monreale are located, and where you can spend a few hours or even a day in the hospitable and pleasant Ancient Springs. Moreover,** you can brush up on this island's ancient and mysterious history by visiting the Sacred Well of Sant’Anastasia. Very interesting and not far away is also the Nuraghe and Museum "Genna Maria" **in Villanovaforru.

Furthermore, strolling in San Gavino Monreale's town, you will come across dozens of murals made by more or less famous artists, as already seen in San Sperate. It is a leap into the past to remember customs and traditions. The most famous mural and the first in order of creation is the one decorating the facade of Casa Dona Maxima, which tells the story of the local peasant civilization.

Well, as I showed you in this virtual tour, the Saffron Roads of Sardinia are** full of important places to visit on your quest for the red gold. Ideally, it would be best if you take a nice ride to enrich the eyes, and then finish it in style, tasting the local specialities based on saffron, the red gold of Sardinia**. We are waiting for you!

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