Saffron, the flower of happiness, grown by the sea. I’m Mirella Di Gangi and in 2012, I started “Zaffera” in Alghero, Sardinia, out of my passion and deep-seated curiosity and the love I’ve always had for the earth and agriculture: one day, I was watching a program about saffron in Sardinia on TV and I was captivated by the colours of the spice and the care with which it’s grown. For over thirty years I’ve had a completely different job – a meticulous, painstaking one at that – but ever since I became enchanted with saffron, I’ve been dedicating precious bits of my time from life/work to follow its journey, from sowing the bulbs to the growth of this amazing spice, truly the queen of spices.
Growing saffron has given so much to my life – a life full of many passions and commitments – and yet, saffron has made it simpler and happier. It’s no coincidence that the saffron flower is known as the “flower of happiness.” Our eyes see saffron as an enchanting flower with delicate yet such intense colours, the red of the stigmas going straight to our hearts. It contains many properties in addition to its unmistakable colour and flavour; the benefits of saffron have long been recognised by traditional medicine and Ayurveda. In cooking, it’s used in a wide variety of dishes from appetisers to desserts. It’s excellent in pureed vegetable soups and puddings, as well as in fish-based pasta dishes and stewed meats, to say nothing of “Morpheus’ nectar” or saffron tea. I started my business with a dear friend, planting 12,000 corms in a roughly 2,000 square metre field.
The bulbs came from Samassi and San Gavino Monreale, the regions with the largest saffron production in Sardinia and the entire peninsula. I later continued alone on land that my parents had acquired when they first arrived here from the Barbagia region. Both teachers, they let themselves get caught up in the land and the way it can make you feel that love for your origins. The person who gave me the bulbs was a bit skeptical and reluctant to guide me in growing them but I found great support from two kind young saffron famers from a town near Alghero. After two months, the first flowers yielded a production of 100 grams of saffron. Four years of work later, production reached 400 grams. Today, cultivation has expanded with new corms planted in a roughly 2,000 square metre field, resulting in increased production. When the business first started, I decided to use the same field for several years but in 2016 it became clear that I needed to start rotating the fields. The method I use is completely organic even though it’s not certified. The flowers are harvested with the first autumn rains, usually between October and November. The harvest is concentrated over the course of a month at most and the flowers are picked first thing in the morning as they bloom. Next comes the laborious, skilled work of selecting the stigmas, which is the most demanding part of the whole process. All the stages of cultivation, from sowing to flowering to harvest and subsequently “cleaning” the flowers, bring people together, intertwining interpersonal relationships and manual work. My greatest satisfaction came after getting the results of the first chemical analysis from the Sardinia consumer product testing laboratory, which showed that the parameters are compliant with the first category. In order to be sold and used as food, saffron must have a series of well-defined chemical parameters that make it select and high quality. The last step is marketing the stigmas.
The business activity solely involves cultivating saffron and selling the stigmas and corms. I take great care in packaging the final product of saffron threads, which are marketed in jars containing 0.3 grams, 0.5 grams, and 1 gram. I also make party favours containing saffron. In addition to selling saffron, I’ve begun making artisanal sweets using precious saffron threads. I am also currently experimenting with a saffron-based liqueur. In 2015, I started collaborating with the Porto Conte Regional Natural Park, which works with local businesses. This was significant in that the organisation assigns its Park Brand, which is an important identifying symbol and gives businesses that receive it the opportunity to use it to enhance the value of their products. Alghero is known for its red gold – coral; we can now say that it also has its red-yellow coral – saffron.