A brief article in a newspaper caught my eye the other day: “For the first time in two centuries, saffron is being grown in Essex – just outside Saffron Walden, the town to which it gave its name.” Well, I thought, that’s interesting…
I love Saffron, both for its unique, warming flavour, and its rich red gold colour. It perfumes dishes and has a slightly sweet but earthy taste that can be used to flavour salty or sweet recipes, and is perfect for adding to basmati rice for that authentic Indian curry! It always seems terribly exotic to me, as if it has been shipped in on an old spice route… but of course, it is derived from the flower of Crocus sativus, commonly known as the saffron crocus. First cultivated in Greece, it can be grown perfectly well here in the UK, as witnessed by the town of Saffron Walden.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. The dried stigmas of the saffron crocus can only be picked by hand but, fortunately, a little saffron goes a long way…! I buy a little pot for about £5 and it will probably last me 3 or 4 months.
Saffron has been around since the beginning of civilization. The ancient Greeks, for example, used the spice to scent and purify their temples. The ancient Romans bathed in saffron water. Cleopatra supposedly used it as a facial mask… perhaps an early example of an ‘orange tan’!? Throughout medieval times, saffron had great commercial importance in Europe, especially as a dye, with saffron-coloured clothes being worn by royalty and nobility – a clear sign of how wealthy you were.
So, back to 2014 and Saffron Walden – apparently, local farmer called David Smale is now Britain’s only commercial saffron grower and he started growing saffron crocuses 10 years ago. Saffron growing thrived in Britain in the 16th century, before eventually dying out owing to cheaper imports. Today, he sells the spice to Fortnum and Mason for a whopping £75 a gram – that’s three times the price of gold!
I might just try growing a few saffron crocuses myself – Suttons Seeds sell them, complete with instructions on how to harvest the saffron. With beautifully scented autumn blooms, Sutton’s say that it’s actually very easy to grow – you certainly don’t need to have green fingers! Just plant the bulbs in a sunny spot in your garden and unlike their more well-known spring-blooming cousins, once established they put on a display of beautiful and deliciously scented blooms. They will thrive in a well drained border, but can easily be grown in a container on the patio. Plus, they’re super-hardy and they’ll multiply rapidly from year to year.