Autumn in Abruzzo has many a harvest that you can follow, but the saffron ”raccolta’ has to be one of the most beautiful, despite scoring high on the backbreaking level for those that cultivate Abruzzo’s red gold gold! A weekend in L’Aquila province either in Navelli or Fontecchio gives the chance to get away to pick, eat and learn crafts associated with this precious spice.
Plucked at Dawn
Everyone outside the region is always a little surprised that you harvest these special crocuses in the autumn not the spring! Planted at the end of August,the harvest usually starts the last weekend of October and can last for up to 15 days which makes it a superb way of beating that ‘putting the clocks back for winter feeling’.
Like the larks you will need to get up when the sun first comes up as it is at this time these lilac- coloured crocuses open and display their valuable elongated crimson stamens. Their flowers need to be picked immediately to preserve their unique aroma, the sun dissipates the flavour the longer they bask in it and temperatures in Abruzzo can remain balmy in late October!
On our saffron weekend in Abruzzo we stayed overnight in the cosy self-catering apartments with the weekend organiser’s, Alle Vecchie Querca in San Pio di Fontecchio, a small but perfectly formed medieval village that is located in the heart of the Sirente Velino National Park. It’s a stunning and surprising village despite undergoing restoration, I was expecting silence when I got up and began mooching about but instead there was incredible birdsong from the forest that faces the village.
We drove to began the day watching the ‘Saffron Races’, who could pick the most in 2 minutes, it reminded me of watching an Italian wedding buffet as the elderly become magnificent in the race to bag the most! It proved a great activity for kids too who were welcome to participate too before moving off for coffee and local cakes in the the nearby cafe. One the way back to San Pio di Fontecchio, we stopped at the always amazing Bominaco chapel that has been described as Abruzzo’s Sistine Chapel. The medieval gothic frescos in the San Pellegrino oratorio are superb and not to be missed, each time I visit I spot something new in the cycles that adorn the the walls and ceiling and unusually includes a series on the calendar months with signs of the zodiac thrown in for good measure.
With A Flick and a Toast
The next stage in producing Abruzzo’s red gold is separating the stamens from the petals, which takes a bit of practice but if you have kids with you it’s something that they surprisingly want to sit and do quietly for over an hour, perhaps it is being fed cake and biscuits at the same time which is a treat in itself! Some guests joined us from the city of L’Aquila who sang songs as they worked, it was like being transported back in time, our work maybe less back-breaking but it can lack the colour and chorus of yesteryear!
For lunch we drove into Fontecchio for a picnic in the stunning setting of the Oasis that also serves as a wildlife rescue centre. The view over the turning trees of the national park was stunning! There are a number of walnut trees there that provided a tasty aromatic snack before lunch, it’s my favourite smelling tree of Autumn! The food had been prepared by the wool designer, Antonella Mirtillo who has a shop in the village. All the lilac saffron petals we had bought across she was going to be using to dye the wool for her designs, so nothings was going to waste! Particularly good were her aromatic quince jam filled soft and chewy pizzelle! Her son gave us a cheese making lesson and there was a tour around the village and look at one of Italy’s oldest clocks that follows Italic time and chimes 50 times every evening to commemorate the number of days the village was held under siege by Braccio da Montone before his army was driven away.
How to Book
Outside of Covid times, this saffron weekend ties in with the events that Navelli, the most famous of the Abruzzesi villages puts on for its dop saffron. 2020 sees everything on a smaller scale but this year’s weekend, 30th October – 1st November you can still enjoy a burst of lilac and crimson coupled with the Autumn fall whilst learning new skills and eating delicious dishes that celebrate this spice. This year Antonella’s workshop will teach you how to dye with natural materials, namely saffron and the tribute to saffron within local dishes will be served by one of the best local restaurants. Contact Stefania at Alle Vecchie Quercia to book.
Read about the history of Saffron in Navelli –Navelli’s Saffron Queen and the Power of Bling