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\With the help of a medieval text, David Smale, an Essex farmer has revived a tradition in the heartland of production in Tudor times. He is cultivating his crop in a secret location.  (photo: saffron flower). The Telegraph

Saffron has returned to the fields of England for the first time in 200 years — and only a stone’s throw from the town of Saffron Walden, the heart of British production in Tudor times.

Saffron-growing died out in Britain as the painstaking harvesting methods became too expensive to compete with cheap imports from Iran and Kashmir.

However, Mr Smale is determined to revive the centuries-old tradition and grow his business into a full-scale commercial enterprise.

With a gram (0.035oz) of spice selling for up to £75, saffron is more expensive than gold because the harvesting is so laborious. Each crocus flower yields just three stigma, which are picked by hand then dried to create the saffron strands.

As Britain’s only saffron grower, Mr Smale has attracted the attention of food shops such as Fortnum & Mason and Partridges in London.

David Smale, 50,  began his business by growing the Crocus sativus — commonly known as saffron crocus — flowers in his back garden but it was not until he found a Tudor manuscript on growing saffron while browsing in a library that things really took off.  “I’ve always wanted to grow something and one day I had a mad idea that I would grow saffron. I live in Essex and my family has a connection to Cornwall, two places that were big on saffron production centuries ago. I looked into who was growing saffron and to my surprise I found there was no one doing it. I was told the practice had died out a few hundred years ago which I thought was ridiculous, so I decided to give it a go,” said Mr. Smale.

He added: “For the first few years I had some successes and some disasters but there was no one to turn to for advice – I was learning as I went along. The turning point came when I found a medieval text for growing saffron in the archives of the library at Saffron Walden. It dated back to the 1600s and confirmed everything I had learnt so I knew I was doing it right.”

It was then that he decided to turn his hobby into a business, English Saffron. “Each year we get bigger and bigger and by next season we are hoping to be able to employ people. “To have that industry back in Essex after all these years is amazing.”  As well as tending to his crop of crocuses, David runs a geophysics consultancy.

The crocuses are planted in summer then harvested in late autumn. Tens of thousands of flowers have to be hand picked at just the right moment then dissected to remove the three red stigmas from each one. The strands are dried on racks for 24 hours then put into storage containers, ready for packing.  

These days saffron is more associated with exotic locations like Iran, Morocco and Spain, but in the past English saffron has been by reputation the best in the world.  “Ours certainly comes out top in taste tests. It’s sweeter and more honey-like than other varieties and I think that’s down to the nutrients in the soil.  We’re lucky that there’s a food revolution at the moment and people are prepared to pay a little bit more for quality produce made locally."

A 0.2g packet of Mr Smale’s saffron sells in Fortnum & Mason for £15. He is hoping to increase his output by 20 times next season.  “We moved into a new field this year which will become our centre for processing and we’re looking to take on another field next season" he said. 

He added: “Saffron Walden was one of the world’s major producers of saffron a few centuries ago and we’re happy to be doing our bit to keep the tradition alive.”

 

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