The Plot Thickens

Hi, I’m Karen Meadows. Thank you for visiting The Plot Thickens.

I’m lucky enough to be the tenant of one of fifty large allotment gardens in the middle of the small and beautiful stone town of Stamford in England’s East Midlands. The gardens were first created by Brownlow Cecil, 4th Marquess of Exeter in the mid 1800s and their layout has remained virtually unchanged. Between the plots we have some 200 old apple trees, many of them rare varieties, and in 2017 Natural England awarded the gardens heritage orchard status.

Over the centuries at least 500 people have worked these plots. Follow our quest to discover who they were, what they grew, and what shenanigans they got up to. Be prepared for numerous diversions and musings along the way about gardening life here in our quiet (and occasionally not so quiet) little corner of Stamford.

If you haven’t discovered our website yet, do head over to Waterfurlong Orchard Gardens, where you will find a wealth of information about our gardens and gardeners, past and present.

And now for the small print...

The Plot Thickens is a non-commercial blog. All recommendations are based on personal preference and my own or our other gardeners’ own experience. Payments or free goods are not accepted in return for reviews of products and services. If an exception is made this will be clearly stated.

All words and images, unless otherwise credited, are my own. If you would like to copy text or images, I’d kindly ask that The Plot Thickens gets a positive mention and a link back to this blog.

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Worth Its Weight In Gold - Our Saffron Experiment

October 24, 2018

 

                        Photograph © Copyright Blue.Tardis via Flickr

 

In August gardener Huw set us a new challenge - growing our own saffron.

 

It is the purple autumn-flowering crocus (crocus sativus) that produces this costliest of spices. Each scented flower yields three scarlet stigmata (known as threads) that have to be hand-picked the day they bloom, quickly dissected and spread to dry. The harvesting process is so painstaking it makes saffron more 

expensive than gold. 

 

The name 'saffron' comes from the Arabic word for yellow. First recorded in Crete in 1500 BC, the spice perfumed Greek palaces, bathed the battle-wounds of Alexander the Great, illuminated Venetian manuscripts and coloured the robes of Tibetan monks.

 

The fragrant threads are used to add a vibrant yellow colour and rich, creamy flavour (described as somewhere between eggs and golden syrup) to dishes across the Middle East, India and Moorish Spain. Today 90% of the world's saffron is cultivated in Iran, with smaller areas of production in Greece, Spain, China and Australia, so it's surprising to find that saffron is a quintessentially British ingredient which was grown here on a huge commercial scale for hundreds of years. 

 

 The Saffron Walden Crocus Harvest by Nathan Maynard

 

Chepyng Walden on the Essex/Cambridgeshire borders became 

so associated with the spice that by Tudor times the town restyled itself Saffron Walden and was granted a charter by Henry VIII depicting the flower. Saffron Hill in London's Camden was another centre of production. Saffron was used extensively to colour medieval cloth and the first reference to a dye works in Saffron Walden dates back to 1359, but by 1700 a higher return on investment from other crops meant saffron was barely being grown in the area. The good news is that some enterprising local farmers have once again started cultivating Essex's 'red gold' and are struggling to keep up with demand for the luxury crop.

 

Meanwhile, we can report modest success with our own experiment. By the middle of this month we'd largely abandoned hope, but up sprang first the fine grass-like leaves and then the dainty flowers, the whole process from shoot to harvest taking only a few days. Our soil isn't silty and free-draining enough ever to have supported saffron as a commercial crop, but who knows whether the medieval Austin Friars who once gardened our land grew a patch or two to add colour and piquancy to the dishes they served their more noble visitors?

 

 

 

 

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