A handful of pioneering English farmers are quietly reviving the lost art of saffron growing. Food writer Daniel Tapper discovers what sets this precious spice out from the rest
Words: Daniel Tapper
There is hardly a country on earth that doesn’t claim saffron as its own. A truly international ingredient, this pungent, bitter, deep red spice is found in everything from French bouillabaisse to Spanish paella, Italian risotto to Persian pilaf, Indian biryani to Cornish saffron cake.
The first to use the stigma of the flowering purple crocus sativus as a spice were probably the Cretans, who were cultivating the crop almost three millennia ago. In medieval times it spread through Italy, France and Germany before reaching the shores of England in the 14th century, probably via Cornwall in the hands of tin-trading Phoenicians.
A seafaring nation with fertile soils, during the 1500s England established itself as one of the world’s biggest saffron producers, particularly in Essex where the town of Walden was renamed Saffron Walden.
Sadly, by the late 1880s almost every commercial saffron producer in England had closed its doors, largely due to competing suppliers from Iran who could produce the spice at a fraction of the price of their English counterparts.
Pioneering English farmers
However, all this would change in the late 1990s when a handful of pioneering English farmers began to re-explore this long forgotten crop. Among them was a geo-physicist by the name of David Smale.
“I became fascinated with the spice and began looking into where it was being grown,” says Smale. “After a lengthy amount of investigation involving a lot of trips to various agricultural colleges, I realised nobody was producing it. I then started growing it as a hobby, mainly as a way to preserve the heritage of this once proud industry. My first plantation consisted of 150 bulbs, which yielded just over half a gram.”
Fifteen years later, Smale now boasts four fields of saffron across Essex, home to around 400,000 bulbs. Lauded by chefs across the country, Smale’s saffron sells for as much as £10 for just one-fifth of a gram.
This hefty price tag is a direct result of its labour-intensive harvest. Every single flower is dissected from the plant by hand and it requires around 70,000 flowers to obtain one pound of saffron—or a whole acre to yield about four and a half kilograms. With an entire workforce paid a living wage, the price of production soon adds up.
A cut above the rest
What sets English saffron out from the rest? Until recently, it was widely accepted that the best saffron was that produced in the south-east of Spain. However, in recent years an increasing number of eminent cooks and food critics, including Spanish maestro Jose Pizarro, have identified English saffron as a cut above the rest during blind tasting sessions. Smale is unsurprised.
“Some of the saffron labelled as Spanish is in fact grown in Iran, so you have no idea where it has come from,” he says. “What’s more, in my opinion, English saffron is simply better. The soil here is more fertile than the arid soils found in Spain or Iran, which gives it a sweeter flavour.”
“While many producers sell their saffron straight after it’s dried, we age ours for up to a year, just like you would with wine or high quality tobacco. This mellows some of the higher flavour notes and ultimately results in a far more complex tasting product.”
Smale’s customers appear to agree. Sales have been increasing every year since 1999 and with more people becoming interested in the product, he has even turned his hand to producing an English saffron beer, as well as saffron-infused small-batch gin.
Another English saffron grower making waves among foodies is Sally Francis, founder of English Saffron based near Burnham Market in Norfolk. Francis planted her first bulbs in her garden in 1997 while studying botany.
Since going commercial in 2009, the company has attracted the attention of some of Norfolk’s highest rated restaurants. Though she doesn’t want to share exactly how much saffron she currently produces, some of her current clients buy more in one order than her entire first year’s crop.
“We are still a very small-scale artisan producer, but our sales grow every year,” says Francis, “which is really encouraging. We’re also starting to branch out with new products like smoked saffron, saffron flour and saffron liqueur—all of which have won Great Taste awards in recent years.
“It was only when I first started looking into saffron production that I realised the northern coast of Norfolk had once been a centre of saffron growing,” she adds. “In fact, saffron from this region was so highly regarded in the 1600s that much of it was exported to continental Europe, especially Holland. Who knows; one day this might happen again.”
Four of the best: international saffrons from Borough Market traders
Iranian, Spice Mountain
Iran is a major producer of saffron, and this is one of the country’s very best. Its warm, sunny flavour is particularly bold, so it lends itself to those special occasion dishes that really need to sing.
Kashmiri, Spice Mountain
A rare saffron produced in very small numbers. While not as bold as the Iranian variety, it has a clear, classic saffron flavour with a touch of sweetness, making it perfect for desserts—just one long strand is enough to imbue a dish with a beautiful deep red colour.
Krokos kozanis PDO, Oliveology
Greek saffron accounts for only around 1.5 tonnes of the 200-tonne world production total, but is regarded as among the finest. This PDO variety found at Oliveology is grown on a cooperative in Kozani, northern Greece. Use it the Macedonian way as a flavouring for coffee, or add to a dish of baked orzo.
La Mancha PDO, Brindisa
A quintessential Spanish ingredient, this saffron is from the inland region of La Mancha, where the spice is an integral part of the cultural heritage. Its protected status means it can contain no more than 0.1 per cent extraneous matter. Cultivated with exacting care, it is lightly toasted to intensify the flavour.