The lavish history of saffron: A spice worth more than gold

BY Harry Pearson

18th Sep 2022 Life

The lavish history of saffron: A spice worth more than gold

Once a sign of extravagant wealth, saffron used to be one of England's most prized exports. Now the "red gold" spice is returning to British fields

Two decades ago, David Smale did something that nobody in England had done for over 200 years. On his farm in Essex, he gathered in his first harvest of what had once been the country’s most valuable crop: saffron.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. Produced from the stigma of the autumn flowering purple crocus (Crocus sativus), it has at points in history been worth three times the price of gold.

Like all rare and valuable commodities, saffron has a history rich with legend. It is said that Ancient Egyptian alchemists used it to make Kypi, the world’s first perfume. Cleopatra gave her skin a golden lustre by bathing in saffron-infused waters.

Medieval monks used the yellow spice mixed with egg white to substitute for gold leaf in illuminated manuscripts.

The wealthy ladies of Renaissance Italy signalled their riches by using a mixture of saffron, egg yolk, honey and sulphur to tint their hair the same colour as their saffron-dyed gowns.

How saffron came to Britain

Facade of Tudor houses painted red and yellow in Saffron WaldenThe Essex-town Chepyn Walden became so well known for its part in the spice trade that it changed its name to Saffron Walden

The arrival of the first purple crocus in England has a colourful tale attached, too. It is said the corm was smuggled into the country in the hollow staff of a 14th-century pilgrim returning from the Holy Land.

He planted it near Bude in Cornwall and soon local farmers were producing a crop so valuable it was nicknamed “red gold”.

A more likely, though less romantic, explanation is that the Cornish traded tin for the corms with Spanish traders. Saffron—derived from the Arab word for yellow—was introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors in the tenth century, though it had first been cultivated in Bronze Age Greece.

"It is said the corm was smuggled into the country in the hollow staff of a 14th-century pilgrim"

However saffron got here, the English quickly became experts in its cultivation. By the 16th century, England was the world’s biggest producer of saffron.

Though Cornwall maintained large crocus fields and an appetite for saffron cakes that remains to this day, the centre of the trade was a town in Essex called Chepyng Walden. By 1580 Chepyng Walden had become so scented with the hay-like aroma of the spice, the town changed its name to Saffron Walden.

Local clergyman William Harrison noted in 1577 that, “The saffron of England…is the most excellent of all others” and, since the saffron in Essex was the best in England, it was, therefore, the best in the world.

Other nations appear to have agreed with Harrison. In the 16th century, the little ports of East Anglia were filled with ships that carried English saffron to the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

What is saffron used for?

Nowadays we associate saffron almost exclusively with food such as paella and rice pilaf and drink (it’s used to flavour both gin and vermouth), but the spice once had far more wide ranging uses.

It was a dye for silk, linen and wool (Saffron Walden had dye workshops on site). The fabric produced was so expensive it became associated with wealth and power just as purple cloth had been in Ancient Rome.

The yellow spice was used in cosmetics such as lipstick (fashioned from saffron, tallow and beeswax). Ladies coloured their finger and toenails with it.

It was used by pharmacists and physicians, too. Saffron was said to be good to treat cuts and abrasions, while rubbing a paste of it on the head was thought to cure melancholia.

"Saffron contains high levels of antioxidants, which may help in treating depression"

Modern studies show that saffron contains high levels of antioxidants, which may help in treating depression and soothing inflammations, so perhaps these remedies were not so far wide of the mark as they might appear.

Though it was clearly never a shield against the Black Death, as some apothecaries claimed.

The value of the spice inevitably led unscrupulous traders to cut the real thing with cheaper substitutes such as safflower (Carthamus tinctorius) or even strands of beetroot. Those found guilty of such crimes faced stiff penalties. One merchant caught adulterating saffron in 15th-century Nuremberg was buried alive.

How is saffron harvested in the UK?

Woman tips harvested saffron flowers into wicker basketSaffron farms are once again being sighted across the British countryside after their first demise two centuries ago

The harvest season for the purple crocus begins in late September and lasts for around six weeks. The flowers are best picked in the morning before they have fully opened. It is back-breaking work.

Each flower head produces three red stigma from which saffron is made. It takes around 200 flowers to produce a single gram of the dried spice. A gram of high quality saffron retails today for around £20 (the current price of gold is around £47 per gram).

The intensive labour, the risk of failed harvests and a fall in demand all contributed to the demise of the English saffron industry. The last major plantation outside Saffron Walden was destroyed in 1770. The saffron trade in Britain died with it.

"It takes around 200 flowers to produce a single gram of the dried spice"

Then along came David Smale. The pioneering Essex horticulturist has since been joined by other intrepid saffron growers in Norfolk, Cornwall, Cheshire and Wales.

Due to the temperate climate, British saffron is said to be sweeter and more honeyed than the imported version.

Though the UK will never again rival the output of countries such as Greece, Spain and Iran, the sight of the tens of thousands of violet and lavender-coloured crocuses decorating the October landscape will gladden the hearts of romantics.

They are flash of the legendary and the exotic in the cool light of autumn days.

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