Norfolk Saffron held an Open Day on 8th September.
That’s a bit random, you might say. What has it to do with my blog?
You may remember I reviewed The Saffron Trail in June for #30DaysWild after my bookclub read it. The idea of growing saffron in the UK surprised me, so looked into it further. Why I was surprised I don’t know. I used to live near Saffron Walden, and the clue is in the town’s name!
It turns out that it is, as the book suggests, a cottage industry now. The cost of labour to extract the stamens from the crocuses, let alone all the other hand-tending, makes it very much a labour of love. But I checked out the website for Norfolk Saffron, which I found by accident, noticed they had an open day or two, as well as stalls at various food fairs around the region, so put the open day in my diary.
I was the first person to arrive on the afternoon of the open day. Sally welcomed me warmly. She asked how I’d discovered it, since the Heritage Day’s publicity materials omitted it. There’s a lot of that sort of thing going on at present. Some people seem to have no concept of attention to detail. I was closely followed by two people (about my age) on a walking holiday. They’d come via the Peddar’s Way, and knew more about Norfolk heritage than I did. And they’d come from Sussex!
Sally showed us around the charming hut museum in her garden, with the posters about saffron, its history, uses and so on. She had samples of her own saffron for us to see and smell. She also had some of the substitutes that are passed off as ‘saffron’. If you buy a bag of ‘saffron’ on a Turkish market for not much money, as I did, it’s may well be safflower, a totally different plant. It has no colouring properties, and little taste. No wonder I gave up on it! Other things passed off as saffron include turmeric, which I failed to identify by smell, dried marigold leaves, and brick dust!!
There is an international standard (ISO 3632) for saffron, which grades into 1, 2, or 3 based on three factors. These are the dying power, the flavour and the ‘health’ factors i.e. content of certain xxx-ides which may have beneficial properties, but at least are measurable. Most supermarket saffron is grade 3. It’s okay. Sally’s is grade 1. The saffron from the top countries like Iran, India and somewhere else in that area have their own quality standards, and the top class is way above the ISO grade 1.
Sally’s crocus field
We didn’t get to see Sally’s crocus field, which in September is just bare earth. It needs regular weeding. The crocus start to flower towards the end of October, and some years continue on to December. They look like the autumn crocus, colchicum, but saffron crocus is crocus sativa, and is a sterile hybrid of two ancient strains. It can only be propagated from the offsets from the corms, which grow on top of each other. So each year Sally lifts a portion of the plants, divides them up, and replants the younger corms in new ground. That way she also gets some rotation into the land.
It takes a thousand stamens, three stamens per flower, to make 125 g of saffron! It’s a fiddly job, only done by hand. You extract the three long stamens from the flower and put it aside to be dried in a kiln of Sally’s making. Apparently many people in Sally’s village turn out to help – backbreaking work in the late autumn fields right on the north Norfolk coast! Pick all day then sit around and strip out the stamens, just as suggested in the Saffron Trail.
Pots of saffron
I found it all fascinating, and wouldn’t mind helping out at harvest, but like all these things – helping out is one thing, being dedicated to do it day after day until the harvest is in is quite another! I was just happy to buy pots of saffron, both natural for general use and sweet things like spiced buns, and oak smoked, especially for paella and risotto… in fact I took heed of Sally’s ideas for cookery and added some in my bread-making the next day.
If you’re interested, or would like to buy some genuine saffron, check out the Norfolk Saffron website. Unfortunately Sally can’t ship to most countries abroad, due to food import rules. But you could buy her book and find some real saffron in your own country to try the recipes out.