The spice saffron (zafferano) comes from a plant called crocus sativus.
Originally from Asia, saffron was brought to Tunisia through the spice trade, then to Spain. It is said that bulbs were smuggled to Italy by a Dominican monk in the 13th century. This region of L’Aquila (Abruzzo), about two hours east of Rome, produces some of the best zafferano in the world.
Crocus sativus is grown at altitudes of up to 3,280 feet above sea level and is harvested only in the fall. During the short (20-day) harvest period, the flowers are picked by hand early in the morning when the flowers are not open yet. The plants are then taken to a workshop where the stigmas (the good stuff) are carefully removed from the petals.
The bulbs grown in L’Aquila are larger and more potent than most, in part because of the soil and climate of the region. But also because the bulbs are uprooted annually and selected for size.
At a price of $2,000 to $10,000 a pound, saffron is by far the most expensive food on earth.