Saffron: Norfolk's spice production in Burnham Norton
PUBLISHED: 16:16 03 April 2018
This month Mary's culinary journey takes her to Burnham Norton to learn more about the amazing spice, Saffron
It may come as a surprise that north Norfolk was once famous for its saffron. Tudor, Stuart and Georgian growers, ranging from large local estates to individuals, were producers for a lucrative export trade to the Low Countries and included a vicar of Blakeney who produced the crop as a sideline.
Some years ago, Dr Sally Francis’s mother gave her 20 crocus plants for her birthday and it sparked her interest in the spice. A few years later they planted another 20,000 (all by hand!) at their family smallholding at which point commercial production began, and that was the start of Sally’s company, Norfolk Saffron.
The subtleties of our Norfolk soil, coastal micro-climate, harvesting and drying methods make our saffron a unique, exceptionally flavoursome and much stronger product than mass-market spice. Award-winning, its potency has been verified by independent laboratory testing. Norfolk Saffron’s reputation is for strength and quality – a little goes an amazingly long way.
The crop is painstakingly harvested by hand – 150 to 200 flowers are gathered then trimmed to yield each single gram of dried saffron. Norfolk saffron consists of the rich, deep red stigmas from the current season’s flower crop, so is wonderfully fresh and potent.
The name saffron comes from the Arabic word za’faran, meaning yellow. This culinary gem is the stigma of the autumn flowering Crocus sativus and is the most expensive spice in the world – more costly than gold.
Saffron comes with myths and stories. Zeus is said to have slept on a bed of saffron and Hermes, the messenger of the gods, having accidently wounded his friend Crocos, turned her blood into a flower. Many years on a story suggests that a pilgrim smuggled a saffron corm into England hidden in his staff.
Make sure you are not tricked into buying fake saffron: safflower. This thistle-like plant with yellow/orange florets has none of saffron’s lovely colour, flavour or aroma. Safflower florets are sometimes still in bunches and do not have saffron’s typical trumpet-like threads. Depending on how the saffron has been processed, these might still be fixed in groups of threes; safflower is never like that. Safflower will not have any info about ISO 3632 grading on its packaging as it would fail this test. If a bag of ‘saffron’ at a market abroad (Morocco or Turkey for instance) is very cheap it’s almost certainly safflower.
When cooking with saffron it needs to be fresh. Use the amount a recipe dictates. Too much saffron is not pleasant, too little means the saffron is overwhelmed. Saffron needs time to release its colour, flavour and aroma; it needs to be infused and not just added to a dish. Crumble or grind it before use, allow to infuse (in water, milk, or stock) before adding to the recipe.
Sally says: “Don’t be too reverential with it; break it up and infuse it before adding to the recipe”.