Pasta with saffron and pancetta:
Spaghetti alla chitarra con zafferano e pancetta.
Pasta with saffron is very traditional in a number of Italian regions, in particular Abruzzo, where saffron has been cultivated since the 14th century.
(go straight to recipe and leave your comments)
I’ve just come back from a long weekend in Abruzzo, Italy. For those who don’t know it, Abruzzo is a region located in central Italy on the Adriatic coast. I had long wanted to visit it, especially because many people say the cuisine in this region is considered one of the purest forms of Italian cuisine and includes many dishes unique to Abruzzo.
I can definitely attest to this. I came across a number of dishes and types of pasta relatively unknown or not so common in other parts of Italy. One example is the many dishes made using saffron including a number of pasta with saffron recipes. In fact, I couldn’t resist buying some saffron whilst in Abruzzo. After all, the best place to purchase any food product has to be where it originates from, right?
Saffron is grown in a few Italian regions but it was first cultivated in Abruzzo and then, because of its high value, became a popular crop in other regions. Today, saffron is mostly grown in Abruzzo, of course, Sardinia, Marche, Tuscany, Lombardy and Emilia. However, the popularity of this crop appears to be spreading even though production is very labour intensive.
A little saffron in Abruzzo history.
According to local legend, the history of saffron in Abruzzo began in 14th century with a Dominican monk named Santucci. Father Santucci was a native of Navelli, the old saffron capital of the region and one of a handful of towns in Abruzzo where saffron is grown today, and the town I bought my saffron in!
Santucci apparently moved to Spain to serve at the court of the Spanish Inquisition. While there, he learned to appreciate and savour many typical Iberian dishes made with saffron (think of Paella!). He liked the spice’s strong aroma, as well as its supposed healing qualities. Santucci decided to try cultivating the spice when he returned to his hometown, bringing with him a number of Crocus Sativus bulbs. He eventually created an enterprise that produced a high-quality saffron which became well-known throughout Europe
Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world!
Known as Navelli saffron or L’Aquila saffron, this saffron is, today, generally agreed to be one of the very best in the world. Its stigmas are longer, its aroma stronger and its colour deeper than most others. It is also known as the red gold of Abruzzo and sells for about 25 euros a gram. I paid 18, so I guess it was a good price! However, it’s not surprising that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. About 200,000 crocus sativus flowers are needed to produce 1 kilogram of saffron, made by drying the flower’s stigmas which have to be harvested by hand.
Although saffron is expensive, a little goes a long way. A gram of Italian saffron contains around 300 threads, and most recipes only call for a pinch of saffron threads (4-6 threads) for 4 servings. In fact, if you add too much saffron to a dish it will taste bitter. So, a gram of saffron won’t lead to bankruptcy!
You can buy saffron in either paper or glass containers at speciality food stores or online. Look for the words ‘superior’, ‘sargol’ or ‘coupé’ when buying saffron. These are used to describe the highest quality, so you’ll be sure to get the most aroma and flavour from it. The key to cooking with saffron is to keep it simple. Let the flavour and aroma of the saffron make the dish without the use of too many other spices.
Pasta with saffron recipes.
In Abruzzo, particularly in the area around Aquila, saffron is used in many types of dishes including wonderful pasta with saffron dishes, the most well-known of which is ‘cannarozzetti allo zafferano’ made with sheep’s ricotta, pork cheek and saffron. Some pasta with saffron recipes are very simple and include just saffron, cream and grated cheese. But, there are also a number with vegetables, particularly zucchini and zucchini flowers and also with seafood, as well as meat. I bought a couple of grams of saffron, so I’m planning to make some different pasta with saffron recipes.
To start off with, I decided to use my saffron in a reasonably simple recipe, just pancetta, cream and saffron. I made this dish with spaghetti/maccheroni alla chitarra, which is a square spaghetti made using a unique tool called a chitarra and is the most well-known of Abruzzo’s pastas. In fact, I also bought some of that pasta back with me, as well as a ‘chitarra’ so that I can eventually make my own chitarra pasta!
Using saffron not only creates a sauce with a spectacular colour, but it also gives the dish a distinctive taste. They say that saffron can taste different to different people. To me, it added a bitter sweet flavour to the dish. I loved it and I think you will too!
(see the recipe on the next page)
I have used saffron in pasta dishes for decades.One of my favorite recipes is fettucine with sauteed scallops and a creamy saffron sauce.Deicious!! Prof.Dr.med A.E.Bosworth firstname.lastname@example.org Germany
Thanks for your comment. We love saffron in pasta sauces too. It’s not typical in Veneto where we live but is traditional in saffron cultivating regions like Abruzzo and Sardinia.
David Skulski says
Made this tonight. Fabulous. I substituted guanciale for the pancetta (I didn’t have enough of the latter) and I think it might even be an improvement. One suggestion: I think it would be better to start with the pancetta/prosciutto/guanciale first and then add the onions in order to get the meat properly cooked (and remove the extra fat if desired). A trivial detail but what’s life without trivia?
So glad you liked this saffron pasta recipe. It’s a favourite of mine! As you suggest it’s probably a good idea to cook the meat first, particularly guanciale which is fattier.
Interesting! I would have never put saffron with pasta. Looks delicious. I would love to try it.
Thank you Mirlene! Pasta and saffron go really well together! I hope you’ll give it a try! All the best from Verona! Jacqui
Camila Hurst says
I’d never think to use saffron like this! Looks delicious!
Grazie Camila! Pasta with saffron is a match made in foodie heaven! Def worth trying! Greetings from Italy. Jacqui
sondria Harp says
I never though of using saffron with pasta. I usually just think of it with rice. I love it!
Thank you so much lovely Sondria! You should try saffron with pasta. It’s really delicious! Hugs from Verona! Jacqui
Fred Nonterah says
That’s an interesting take on the saffron its gotten me quite curious. The finished product looks fantastic and would love to try it.
Thanks so much Fred! I’m sure you’ll love this dish if you try it! The combination of flavours is fantastic! All the best from Verona. Jacqui
This looks so tasty and not too complicated! Love it!
Thank you cara Lisa! Yes this is a really tasty dish and, as you say, not so difficult to make. Def worth trying! Hugs from Italy! Jacqui
Tiffany Alexandria says
I love saffron and the color of it! I’ve never really thought of adding saffron to pasta, I dont know why! I need to try this.
Thanks so much Tiffany! Yes saffron gives dishes a stunning colour (and taste!). I love using it! I’m sure you’d love it with pasta. Greetings from Verona! Jacqui
This looks so yummy! I love pasta and I love pasta with lots of sauce so this looks perfect for me!
Grazie cara Stephanie! Yes this dish is really yummy and the sauce creamy and tasty! Def worth trying! Greetings from bella Italia! Jacqui
Stine Mari says
Never had saffron in a pasta before, but I’m sure it’s super tasty!
Thanks Mari, yes pasta with a saffron sauce is delicious. I’m sure you’d like it! All the best from Verona! Jacqui
Your pasta looks like the sun in a plate with that gorgeous yellow color! Loved the tips about saffron and its bitterness. My husband brought me heaps of saffron from Morocco, some cheap and some more expensive but it wasn’t worth our while…
What a lovely thing to say Patty! I’m happy you like this dish and the accompanying post! Hugs from Verona! Jacqui
I enjoy learning about new foods and places. Thank you for sharing this recipe and all the great information on saffron! I have never used saffron. But, now I know more about it. 🙂
Thanks for your comment cara Angela! I hope it has inspired you to use saffron in your cooking! All the best from Verona. Jacqui
Great information about saffron, I didn’t know. I like saffron with zucchini and zucchini flower and I like your combination of saffron with bacon. They are perfect together. I will definitely try this recipe
Grazie Laura! I love saffron with zucchini too. In fact I have a pasta recipe for that as well here on the blog! I’m sure you’ll love this combination if you try it! Kisses from Verona! Jacqui
Marika Titley says
They all look delicious. mmmmmm
Dearest Marika, am thrilled that you like the recipes here on the Pasta Project. I try to post 2-3 new recipes a week so please do visit again to see some more pastaliciousness from Italy. All the best from Verona!