Gaskell House Blogs

Searching For Saffron: souvenirs of a joyous trip to Rome

29th October 2023
in blog, People, Volunteering

I have visited Italy several times and of course a highlight is always wonderful food. Usual attempts to recreate memorable meals at home often don’t quite work, but last year, thanks to an Italian friend, I made a discovery that may help me in future. Powdered saffron in Italy is really cheap! Saffron has a unique flavour and is very much a luxury item here.  It can be added to all sorts of foods from breads, buns, biscuits and cakes to rice and pasta dishes. In my experience UK Supermarkets just sell, if at all, tiny glass containers containing a very few un-powdered strands. Visit the herbs and spices section of an Italian supermarket and you often find sachets of powdered saffron for 1 or 2 Euros.  At the back of my mind, throughout my recent trip with other Gaskell Society members, was my wish to seek some out. I may have just mentioned it once or twice to people around me!

I have been to Italy several times, but had never really visited Rome before.  The opportunity to discover this amazing city, at the same time as furthering my interest in and knowledge of Elizabeth Gaskell’s life was irresistible. The itinerary for the trip was 4 days in the city centre then three days up in the Alban Hills, for fresher air and relaxation, as well as trips which it is known Elizabeth Gaskell enjoyed.

Our itinerary in Rome was packed: The Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica, The Galleria Borghese, The Catacombs of Saint Callixtus, the Keats-Shelley House and their graves in the Non-Catholic Cemetery For Foreigners, several stunning churches, the Colosseum by night. It was a feast of history and culture with so much to pack in. I had to keep telling myself Elizabeth Gaskell was here for several weeks on 2 visits, we only had 4 days. No time to look for saffron yet.

You can see more detail of Elizabeth Gaskell’s own visits on this blog Elizabeth Gaskell’s Continental Travels, Part 3 Italy –

After 4 days some of the group  were beginning to flag and were glad to reach the tranquillity of Palazzola, a former Franciscan monastery above Lake Albano, with a glorious view of the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Our arrival was memorable as we sat straight down to lunch at long tree-shaded tables outdoors. The weather remained perfect so that we were able to eat all our meals here for the next 3 days.

In 1863 Elizabeth Gaskell visited Albano, the small town which gives the lake its name, just a few miles away, and stayed in a small inn chiefly in order to visit Frascati famous for, as well as its wine,  many notable large villas built by Roman nobility. Many of these villas were built from the 16th Century onwards, though sadly many were destroyed during WWII when Frascati was heavily bombed.

First for us was a visit to Castel Gandolfo.   We visited the Papal palace and its extensive gardens on a gloriously quiet morning. In the museum we saw portraits of all the popes including Pius IX who was Pope in 1846-1878. Elizabeth Gaskell will have seen him when she attended Holy Week gatherings at the Vatican. We know, from Catherine Winkworth’s letters that she attended Good Friday mass in the Sistine Chapel. We learned that the current Pope does not use Castel Gandolfo as a summer residence, regarding it as too costly.

After the history we had time for coffee and ice cream in the square of the small town, plus a little souvenir hunting. Bravely I ventured into a small deli and asked for “Zefferano”. Success. My first packets of saffron were acquired.

The next day, our final morning, we were taken to Frascati which revealed itself to be a rather wonderful hillside town with its large villas, a cathedral and proper shops. It became the home of Henry Benedict Stuart, younger brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie, who as Cardinal Duke of York, was Bishop here from 1761 till 1807.  A plaque just inside the door of the cathedral commemorates him.

After a look round the historic centre, which included a lovely market square, there was more shopping time. I found expensive (5 Euros!) saffron in an organic/health shop.

Then more, cheaper saffron in a rather wonderful store where one had to ask for everything and obtain a receipt, which then had to be taken to a cashier at the exit where it was re-entered into a till and paid for. Very traditional!

Happy now, I should have sufficient saffron to last me a few months, maybe until my next Italian adventure. Risotto alla Milanese anyone?

Jane Mathison, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

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