For a while now I’ve been wanting to do some research on the history of saffron growing in the region. It seems like an incredibly exotic, colourful and delicate ingredient to be grown in East Anglia so I was intrigued to find out more. And what better place to start than Saffron Walden – the clue is in the Essex town’s name, so surely that would best place to go… Or so you might think!
In fact it’s not all that easy to find out a lot of detail about saffron growing in Saffron Walden, online at least. The town’s Wikipedia’s entry says that “In the 16th and 17th centuries the saffron crocus (crocus sativus) was widely grown, thanks to the town’s favourable soil and climate. The flower was precious, as the saffron extract from the stigmas was used in medicines, as a condiment, in perfume, as an aphrodisiac, and as an expensive yellow dye.”
It’s interesting to see that saffron had a wide range of uses and was a valuable commodity, which brought wealth to the town. But also that the trade came and went by the end of the 18th century as alternative, cheaper dyes were sourced causing demand to fall – and presumably cheaper imports became available. The town is left with its name and crest, but the traditions of growing saffron seem to have completely disappeared.
Perhaps a visit would yield more clues, but its thunder was somewhat stolen when we went to a recent Heritage Open Day at Burnham Norton Friary in North Norfolk. There we met Dr Sally Francis who, as well as taking us around the fascinating remains of the Carmelite Friary, showed us that the art of growing and harvesting saffron is very much alive in Norfolk.
Sally started growing saffron crocuses at home, but the success of her early crops (no doubt thanks to her background as a botanist) has led her to start a business – Norfolk Saffron (@NorfolkSaffron) – producing the saffron, and discovering along the way a surprising wealth of history around growing and exporting saffron from the Norfolk coast.
Sally’s research has uncovered numerous sites across North Norfolk where saffron was once grown. There are often clues in the names of lanes and farms – there is also proof that it was once grown by the monks at Norwich Cathedral. It was perhaps not just the suitable growing conditions that proved the area’s potential for growing saffron, but its proximity to the coast and ports, allowing the crop to be exported to the continent where it commanded a high price. Hence the term ‘red gold’.
Saffron crocuses flower in October, which means that right now is harvest time. As the flowers require a delicate touch the harvest is all done by hand, and fortunately (or not, depending on your point of view!) the plants don’t all flower at once – it requires constant monitoring to make sure each one is picked at the optimum time in order to produce the best quality end result. Fingers crossed the conditions stay good for harvesting and they have a successful crop this year.
Having developed a tried and tested method for picking and drying the stigmas from the crocuses to produce an incredibly high grade saffron, Sally has gone on to use the saffron to make a range of products including saffron flours (we’re looking forward to trying out the strong white flour), King Harry, an award winning liqueur combining the saffron with orange, as well as smoked saffron, which we bought with paella in mind – see recipe below. She’s even written a book about the history of saffron growing in England, along with a collection of recipes.
Paella with Smoked Saffron
I adapted this recipe from Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Paella recipe on the Guardian website. Added to the smoked paprika, the smoked saffron means there’s enough smokiness to almost convince you this was cooked in a huge pan over a wood fire.
25 threads, smoked Norfolk Saffron
50ml dry sherry
6 raw, unshelled tiger prawns
6 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
500ml good-quality fish stock
150g free range skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into chunky pieces
1 onion, finely diced
1 red pepper, cut into strips
1 green pepper, cut into strips
1 tsp smoked paprika
4 tomatoes, chopped
200g Calasparra or other short-grain rice
150g baby squid, cut into rings
150g clams in their shells
Handful of flat-leaf parsley to garnish
½ lemon, cut into wedges
1. Crumble the smoked saffron between your fingers into 1-3mm lengths. Place in a small bowl with 1 tbsp of the sherry and a dash of freshly boiled water. Leave to soak.
2. Shell the prawns and put the flesh aside. Heat 1 tsbp olive oil in a large pan and gently sauté one clove of chopped garlic for two minutes. Add the prawn heads and tails and sauté, stirring to break them up, for three minutes. Pour in the stock and simmer gently for 30 minutes, then strain, season to taste and keep warm.
3. Heat the remaining oil in a 26cm paella or other wide, thin-based pan and add the chicken. Sauté for five minutes until slightly browned, then remove and set aside. Add the onion and garlic and cook until softened, then add the peppers. Once they have started to soften, stir in the paprika and cook for one minute. Tip in the tomatoes and sherry, turn up the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the squid and peas.
4. Stir in the rice to coat well so it forms an even layer, then add 400ml stock and the saffron and soaking liquid. Simmer vigorously for 10 minutes then arrange the chicken, clams and prawns on the top of the dish, pushing them well into the rice but not otherwise disturbing it. Cook for about eight minutes – if the dish looks very dry before the rice has cooked completely then add the rest of the stock, bearing in mind it shouldn’t be at all soupy.
5. Cover the dish with foil and take off the heat. Allow to rest for 10 minutes then garnish with flat-leaf parsley and wedges of lemon.