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The Colourful History of 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.

Bowl of saffron surrounded by Crocus sativus

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, and 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.

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. From there, it's believed, it reached Cornwall in England when the Cornish people traded tin for saffron with Spanish traders.

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.

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 and 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 ($22) and the current price of gold is around £47 ($52) 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.

Then, two decades ago, 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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