17th November 2017

Ancient Spice production now thrives again in the UK thanks to one Essex farmer

At Farmers & Fletchers in the City we take great pride in our long-standing connection with British farming.  We support the best of British farming in every way we can.

In this issue we would like to celebrate the success of one farmer who has just become the winner of the Essex Food & Drink Hero Award 2017.  The award recognises an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the Essex food industry, the winner was David Smale, who turned a hobby into a reality by reviving the art of saffron growing to the UK.

Most cooks have lurking somewhere in their kitchen cupboards a small pot or packet of saffron. This ancient spice that has been used in cooking for centuries is gram for gram more expensive than gold.

As far back as the early 14th century Saffron Walden in Essex was the saffron capital of the world, exporting the spice around the globe, but by 1816 it had become too expensive to produce and the production of saffron died out.

In 2000 Essex farmer, David Smale, a geophysicist by training, thought he would like to try and grow something that was associated with his part of the country. He came up with the long-gone art of growing saffron and set about tying to grow a few corms in his back garden.

Confirmation that this could possibly be the start of the reintroduction of saffron growing in the UK, and an idea that would become a successful business came when David discovered a Tudor manuscript dating back to the 1600’s on growing saffron in his local library.

The information contained in the manuscript confirmed that what David was doing was correct and would lead him to make the decision to expand his crop and to reintroduce commercial saffron growing to the UK. Since 2004 his organic saffron has been grown and sold under the banner of English Saffron (www.englishsaffron.co.uk).

David said: “After reading the manuscript I did some more research and discovered to my surprise that no one had grown any saffron in the UK for several hundred years, so I decided that it was time for me to give it a go.”

The business prospered and has expanded, currently David grows his crop on two single acre plots – one near Saffron Walden and another on a farm with family connections in the Devon village of Exton.

“I now plant around 150,000 corms and every Autumn the crocuses are harvested by hand.  Each rich purple flower yields just three stigmas which are then dried to create saffron strands.

“The process is still very labour intensive; everything including the planting, processing and harvesting still has to be done by hand because the plants are so delicate. It takes 150 flowers to produce a single gram of fragrant red threads.

“Saffron’s taste and aroma varies depending on where it is grown. We have found that our English saffron tends to be sweeter and more honey-like, it’s not as bitter as many varieties grown outside the UK, which is due to the nutrients in our soil.”


Today the majority of the saffron we consume comes from Iran, with smaller quantities still produced in Spain, Greece, Australia, India and China, but thanks to David there is now a high demand for the English saffron, which sells at around £30 per gram of dried saffron.

To get the best out of saffron David advises to soak it for a few hours, preferably overnight in a little warm water.  After soaking the strands should be pale and the colour should have leeched into the liquid.

Saffron often appears in paella or bouillabaisse, but it can also be used in traditional English dishes. David recommends this Cornish recipe that showcases the delicacy of saffron. Cornwall has strong ties with saffron: miners traded their tin for the spice, and to this day, you’ll still find saffron buns and cakes in Cornish bakeries.

For the infusion
20 saffron strands
3 tsp almost-boiling water

For the pate

1 Lightly crush the saffron strands in a pestle and mortar. Transfer to a lightproof container – a ceramic ramekin with a lid, or similar. Pour in the water, cover and leave to infuse for several hours or, ideally, overnight in the fridge.

2 Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Lay the mackerel on a large sheet of foil on a baking tray, season and sprinkle with a tsp of the infusion, 20g butter and the orange oil. Wrap the fish in the foil, bake for 15 minutes then remove from the oven and leave to cool in the foil.

3 Flake the flesh into a blender and add all the juices from the foil parcel, retrieving any saffron filaments. Add the cream cheese, a little more seasoning and another tsp of the infusion. Blend for a minute or two, until smooth, and spoon into a ramekin.

4 Gently melt 55g butter in a saucepan, add the remaining tsp of the infusion and pour over the top of the pate. Refrigerate overnight, so the saffron continues infusing. Serve with warm crusty bread or oatcakes.

To find out more about English Saffron visit www.englishsaffron.co.uk



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