The Return of British Saffron
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Brits are adding sweet flavor … again.
Sally Francis loves baking Easter brioche along the Norfolk coast. Her holiday breads always include a pinch of saffron, a traditional English use of the spice, she says. But unlike most Brits who reach for golden threads hailing from far-flung fields abroad, hers come from the garden out back.
Norfolk may be known for barley and rain-soaked camp gear, but it’s not the first place that springs to mind for growing the pricey spice — famed for adding unique sweetness to everything from breads and desserts to even fish. After all, it’s native to Greece. Yet Francis’s 17th-century home has probably seen the likes of these bulbs, known as corms, before: Saffron once grew in abundance throughout eastern England. “It’s a story that’s almost been forgotten,” she says, noting how it was once exported from local ports to the Continent. The yellow spice fell out of fashion about 200 years ago, owing to changing tastes, but it’s now making a comeback.
For Francis, it began 18 years ago with a birthday starter kit. Despite being an Oxford-trained botanist, she says she had “low expectations,” after reading about saffron being hard to grow. But she got buds and a bit of spice that first year and has been at it ever since, commercializing in 2009. She’s now up to around 100,000 corms. Today, her Norfolk Saffron sells high-grade, award-winning saffron — and related products like liqueur — online after each harvest.
The biggest factor impacting flavor — as with wine — is the terroir.
The buds of the Crocus sativus push up through the soil in autumn, requiring hours of handpicking every day through much of October and November. The stigma are then removed from inside the flowers and dried. It’s all done by hand; there’s no way to mechanize it, which is why saffron “always comes at cost,” Francis says. Taste is affected by heating and drying durations. But the biggest factor impacting flavor — as with wine — is the terroir. So while all saffron growers produce the same flower, each achieves different tastes based on soil texture and temperatures.
Further south, in Essex, grower David Smale has been harvesting the orange and purple goodness for around 15 years. He’s expanded each year to his current 250,000 plants, producing around 300 grams a year. Neither Francis nor Smale, however, was the first to hoe saffron’s comeback trail. That credit, Francis admits, belongs to Caroline Riden of British Saffron, based in Wales, who began growing it on her farm in 1985 and continues to produce, educate, sell and “fervently love saffron.” New producers are “popping up all over the place,” Riden says.
But she cautions that several firms have come and gone, falling victim to rookie mistakes, bad climate or bad luck — ranging from planting dud bulbs to not changing plots often enough. It’s vital to keep the beds warm if temperatures drop too early. This makes mass production tricky given Britain’s cool and often wet summer months. “Domestic production is the answer,” she advises, noting how it would be great if everyone grew a little bit at home to meet their personal consumption needs. Whether it’s grown commercially or privately, Riden’s pleased to see more people digging in and proud to have brought British saffron back into bloom.