Saffron in Calabria: on the road of Red Gold

Ready to set off on a sensory journey on the road of "Red Gold"? Let's find out what it means to cultivate saffron in Calabria
Zafferano (2)

© Azienda agricola Zafferano e dintorni - Antonio Attisani

Food and wine

Mar 1, 2024 10:39 AM

There is a spice that tastes of the Orient and in bloom dyes the fields purple, like a painting. Crocus flower, alias saffron, is among the oldest crops in Calabria.

Few people know it, but the cultivation of saffron in Calabria derives from a centuries-old tradition, which came to the area from the East, when the Arab, Saracen and Byzantine populations in Calabria traded the precious spice throughout the Mediterranean.

Ready to set off on a sensory journey along the path of the so-called "Red Gold"? Let's find out what it means to cultivate saffron in Calabria today and which locations are dedicated to this particular crop.

Cultivation of saffron in Calabria

Saffron, also known as "Red Gold" because of its colour and high commercial value, is one of the oldest trade commodities in the Mediterranean basin.

Introduced to the region in ancient times, in the wake of populations arriving from Greece and from the East, the cultivation of saffron in Calabria reached flourishing industrial production between the 18th and 19th centuries, under the Bourbon dynasty.

In fact, a number of farms responsible for planting, harvesting and processing the bulbs date back to this period and are documented in numerous texts of the time, such as the "Historical and Geographical Description of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies" (1789), which states:  

"[...] Calabria and more so Abruzzo once cultivated a lot of saffron. Today, very little is cultivated in the Cosenza area [...]".

According to the experts, saffron in Calabria has excellent organoleptic qualities, deriving from the particular microclimate and soil composition, suitable for the cultivation of Red Gold.

Zafferano fiori
Azienda agricola Zafferano e dintorni - Antonio Attisani

What are the main characteristics of saffron in Calabria?

In addition to making the most diverse dishes tasty and colourful, from traditional ones to the daring combinations of gourmet cuisine, Calabrian saffron powder is a mine of beneficial substances for the body: it is able to combat cellular ageing, aid digestion and positively influence brain activity, being one of the foods with the highest carotenoid content.

Let's discover in more detail the places and the virtuous chain of saffron cultivation in Calabria...

Saffron of Motta San Giovanni

One of the most favourable habitats in Italy due to its Mediterranean climate, with rainy winters and dry summers, and an altitude of between 700 and 500 metres above sea level, the town of Motta San Giovanni, in the province of Reggio Calabria, is among the best saffron-producing areas in Calabria.

The saffron of Motta San Giovanni is produced by a small local company that, subject to prior reservation, opens its plantation for visits during the peak flowering period, which occurs from mid-October onwards. In autumn, the crocus fields are a spectacular explosion of purple hues.

A trip to Motta San Giovanni, on the "Red Gold Route", is also an unmissable opportunity to visit the architectural symbol of this area: the Castle of Sant'Aniceto. A Byzantine fortress (11th century) that from the top of a hill overlooks the landscape of the Strait and the Aeolian Islands. It is no coincidence that the name "motta", which derives from the French "motte", indicates an artificial rise (also understood as a fortification).

Saffron in Calabria in the province of Cosenza and Catanzaro

Other perfect locations for growing saffron in Calabria are in the province of Cosenza: both in the immediate vicinity of the city, in the municipality of Rende, where an all-female farm has been producing and selling the precious spice of the East for years, and in the municipality of Corigliano-Rossano, in the fertile Sibari Plain.

Moving on to the province of Catanzaro, the cultivation of saffron in Calabria passes through Simeri Crichi e Lamezia Terme, where the altitude of about 450 m above sea level and a fertile, clayey soil make it possible to obtain one of the best qualities of saffron in Calabria.

Zafferano piantagioni
Azienda agricola Zafferano e dintorni - Antonio Attisani

Whether in pistils or powder form, saffron in Calabria dyes the best recipes yellow, and when tasted directly in the areas where it is produced they take on an even more authentic flavour and aroma. A few examples?

If you have never tasted Calabrian saffron risotto, now is the time to do so, discovering what distinguishes it from the classic of Milano in addition to the native saffron, i.e. a base of Tropea Red Onion PGI to be blended with a Bivongi CDO white wine. All another sweetness!