(AGI) Rome, Aug 10 - Saffron has been a prized ingredient in cooking since ancient times, but doctors, artists and poets over the centuries have also lauded it for its bright red colour and medicinal properties. Now, the "red gold" is the crown jewel of the Kozani region in central Greece. Saffron has been grown in the Kozani region since the 17th century and in 1966 its producers founded a cooperative. Today, 1,600 producers cultivate and gather the precious stigmas by hand, waking at dawn and following the preparation process step by step, from the separation of the pistils from the flowers to their drying out. At least 150,000 pistils are needed to obtain a single kilogram of the delicacy. The lengthy and complex process was awarded an organic certification and an ISO 9001 certification of quality in 1997. The following year, it was certified as a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) product. Greek saffron, sold under the exclusive brand Krokos Kozanis, is grown on a surface of around 300 hectares, which produce 6 tonnes of high-quality pistils every year, of which 40 percent are organic. The bulbs of the edible saffron crocus, Crocus Sativus Linneaus, are planted in summer and begin to blossom in mid-October. They are typically hand-gathered by women, who place them in their gowns or baskets and then take them home in panniers. The work requires a delicate hand and usually goes on from dawn to dusk for a month. The flowers are collected at dawn, when their petals are still closed, so that their organoleptic properties aren't affected by exposure to atmospheric agents. In the next step, the red stigmas, typically in groups of three, are separated from the flowers. They are set out to dry on the same day at a temperature of around 35 degrees Celcius, before the red pistils are separated from the yellow ones, thereby eliminating pollens and foreign elements. This step must also be carried out by hand and takes between 20 to 60 days. Finally, the pistils are weighed and packaged to verify that the product conforms to the quality management's strict standards. Producers that don't respect the parameters are immediately eliminated in order to guarantee the product's quality. The "red gold" then arrives in countless homes as a spice, used for everything from patisserie and cheese-making to pasta and liquor. It can also be used as a popular medicinal remedy, thanks to its digestive and anti-inflammatory properties. This year, saffron will also be featured in Taste of Roma. The prestigious food and wine event will be held from Sep. 15-18 in Rome's Auditorium Parco della Musica. (AGI).