The growers leading the UK saffron revival

by Lauren Fitchett18 January 2023

In the Middle Ages, England was the world’s biggest saffron producer. Within a couple of centuries, though, the farming had ground to a halt. We meet the dedicated growers who are on a mission to bring it back to the UK.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

For a few weeks every autumn, Dr Sally Francis, gathers, picks and dries saffron until the early hours of the morning. As most of us sleep, she can be found gently preparing the world’s most valuable spice at her kitchen table in Norfolk, her mum by her side. It’s a smooth operation today, but it has taken twenty five years to perfect. It was in 1997 that then-Oxford University botany student Dr Francis asked her parents for saffron plants as a birthday present. She’d spotted a newspaper advert for them and, aware from her studies that it was tricky to grow, her curiosity was piqued.

‘Back then, if you wanted to find something unusual, it was really, really hard to source,’ she says. ‘I saw some plants advertised and I was interested to see what they looked like. It was probably because I’d read about saffron – it used to be a crop here in the Middle Ages, but the climate was all wrong to grow it. I often wondered why.’

Geophysicist David Smale’s introduction to saffron was also borne of curiosity. He had, in the early 2000s, been looking for something to grow, and the idea of saffron – and returning it to Saffron Walden, which took its name from the spice – stuck. After all, in the Middle Ages, England was the world’s biggest saffron producer, with output peaking in the 1500s. But cheap imports from overseas and the labour intensive nature of the process meant that within a couple of centuries production had all but died out.

David soon learnt that when the farming disappeared, so too did the knowledge around how, exactly, one might grow saffron. Determined to fill in the gaps, he visited a Saffron Walden museum, library and even an agricultural college to brush up, but returned empty-handed. ‘I started making enquiries, but no-one knew anything about growing it,’ he says. ‘I was told that no-one grew it anymore. Everything has been trial and error.’ He later stumbled upon a medieval text from which he gleaned some pearls of wisdom, but his knowledge today is largely the result of his own experience – even in today's digital age, he says many of the guides online are not reliable. 

While saffron, taken from the crocus sativus flower, is often associated with Spain and its vibrant pans of paella, it is believed to have originated in Crete and is most widely grown in Iran (around 98% of the global crop is produced there), before being exported to and repackaged in Spain. Traditionally used as a hair and clothes dye, the crimson spice was a sign of wealth for the rich and has long been praised for its supposed medicinal benefits. Today, most of us are familiar with its culinary uses – and its price tag. After all, it’s often said to be as expensive as gold (this isn't quite true, but it is the dearest spice in the world by some way) – Dr Francis says a 0.3g jar, enough to make a risotto for four, three times, would cost roughly £9.20.

Saffron
Saffron

It's no surprise that both Dr Francis and David had humble first harvests, producing little more than a teaspoonful. But as their understanding of the delicate flowers blossomed, so too did their success. And soon, word began to spread – a government grant in the early 2000s helped Dr Francis take Norfolk Saffron from a hobby to a business, while David's English Saffron caught the eye of former River Cottage chef James Whetlor. Today, they are two of a handful of growers who are returning saffron to the UK, supplying home cooks, chefs, bakers, delicatessens and more. While English Saffron has moved out of David's garden to three bigger spaces (two in Essex, including one at the home of Tiptree preserves, and another in Devon), Dr Francis has remained at her smallholding, which has been in the family since 1934. ‘The process is so labour intensive, and you would never get enough staff to look after it if it was bigger,’ she explains. ‘I can’t tell you how many hours it takes, and we can’t do very much by machine.’

It is, after all, a process which requires patience and precision. Crocus sativus, which must be protected from wildlife and bad weather (Dr Francis says she once lost 10% of her crop to a single stormy day), begins to flower in autumn and, if the weather is kind, will continue to do so for the next six weeks. The harvest signals the start of long days for growers – Dr Francis says she often begins gathering the day's buds at 7am, finishing at lunchtime. Then, sitting around the kitchen table, she picks the red stigmas and styles, or threads, and discards the flowers (which are later composted). After, they must be dried, and all of this happens with the clock ticking. ‘It’s not like apples where you pick them and it’s done,’ David agrees. ‘You can pick about 1,000 flowers an hour, but then for every hour in the field it’s about three hours of processing time.’ Luckily, there are plenty of helpers willing to chip in, with the operation quickly becoming a family affair. ‘I always say don’t come near me in October or you might find yourself directed towards a field,’ David laughs.

The flowers after being gathered.

Saffron's fragility dictates that much of the process must be done by hand, but David is exploring ways to mechanise elements, including planting. In the last couple of years he has raised the plants up to waist level to make the gathering easier, and is also investigating the use of AI, though the precision which would be required means automation is some way off. For the time being it will remain an all-consuming few weeks, which usually comes to an end at the end of November. From then, and until it is time to replant and cultivate corms for the following season, it's a case of selling their stock – and as provenance and quality take centre stage in cooking, eager shoppers often snap up the year's supply in advance. Both growers have also been keen to share their hard-earned knowledge – Dr Francis has written a book about the spice, while last year David held the first saffron festival in the UK in 200 years, picking the threads live in front of crowds. 

Where should cooks looking to experiment with saffron begin, then? From gin to flour, there are plenty of saffron-flavoured products to try, Dr Francis says, but she urges people to to seek out pure, high quality choices (Norfolk Saffron is graded ISO 3632 category I, the best international grade). And remember – a little goes a long way; as a rough rule of thumb, Dr Francis suggests using around three strands per person (there are around 450 threads per gram of saffron). When you're ready to buy, though, you might need to mark it on the calendar – 'we always sell out of the crop each year before the new crop comes in,’ she says. ‘It’s a labour of love and very much a full-time job now.’

Dr Sally Francis first starting growing saffron in 1997.

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