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?