This Is What It’s Like to Farm the World’s Most Expensive Spice
David Smale’s “farm” is the size of a tennis court, on which grow hundreds of saffron plants. It’s taken him ten years to get to this stage and his entire business relies on the small field.
All photos by the author.
It's a spice normally associated with the cuisines of Spain, the Middle East, and India but centuries ago, saffron-growing was a thriving industry in Britain. Such was the flower's influence that the market town of Chipping Walden in Essex even changed its name to "Saffron Walden."
Britain's saffron industry may have petered out in the 1800s as cheaper imports took over but today, a handful of growers are restarting production. I meet former scientist David Smale in a lay-by in somewhere in Essex. He's naturally guarded about the exact location of his plot and I follow him to copse of trees, before we climb over a huge pile of wood blocking a gate.
"It's to stop vehicles getting on the field," he explains.
Smale's "farm" is about the size of a tennis court on which, blowing gently in the autumnal breeze, are hundreds of purple-headed saffron crocuses. His entire business, English Saffron, relies on the small field and the flowers growing on it. It's taken Smale over ten years of development to get to this stage.
"I started with a handful of corms [saffron bulbs] which I managed to get hold of, which wasn't that easy in those days," he says. "Each year they reproduce themselves as a main bulb and two or three little daughter bulbs—which I also planted—and this is the result."
I get down for a closer look at a flower. It has six lilac petals with three yellow stamen at the centre, with three scarlet threads or "stigmas" lolling out between the gaps. I reach out to touch one and a fine red dust comes off onto my fingers, instantly staining them yellow.
It's these potent stigma that are picked and carefully dried to make saffron.
"We plant the corms by hand and then we pick the resulting flowers by hand, but that's not the end of the process like most crops," explains Smale. "We then have to dissect each flower by hand to remove the stigmas. I can pick about a thousand an hour but you can only process about 300 an hour so for each hour you pick, you've got another three hours back in the processing shed."
It's a production technique that has remained the same for hundreds of years.
"The ancient Greeks were doing it in exactly the same way," Smale adds, as a large bumblebee buzzes around us. The pollen is particularly attractive to bees but also soporific. "Sometimes I find them asleep in the flowers."
As well as acting as an insect sedative, saffron is used in dishes like paella, bouillabaisse, and pilaf. Historically it had medicinal and cosmetic uses, with Queen Cleopatra bathing in saffron-infused water to make her skin look richer—possibly one of history's earliest (and costliest) examples of applying a fake tan.
It takes around 85,000 stigmas to produce a single kilogram of the spice, making saffron the most expensive spice in the world. And where there's money to be made, there's often adulteration, counterfeiting, and smuggling.
In May 2015, customs officers at Mangalore airport in India arrested a man called Moideen Salman, who'd arrived from Dubai. But in his baggage wasn't drugs, it was 11 kilograms of saffron valued at nearly £14,000. This was by no means an isolated occurrence. Iran accounts for 90 to 95 percent of the world's saffron production and, until recently, was subject to various trade sanctions, taxes, and embargoes by many countries. Consequently much of the crop would find its way—legally and illegally—to places like the United Arab Emirates, then east to India, or west to Europe, and specifically, Spain.
In 2011, the UK's Food Standards Agency began an investigation with their Spanish counterparts after finding that cheaper saffron from Iran, as well as Greece and Morocco, was being "packaged" and sold as genuine (and more expensive) Spanish saffron. Bear in mind that in 2010 Spain exported 190,000 kilos of saffron worth £40 million, yet local production was a mere 1500 kilos. It took until 2014 for the European Union to began cracking down on mislabelling for products, including saffron.
Smale too is something of an expert in adulterated saffron and has collected a "rogue's gallery" of dodgy samples and cheap knockoffs.
"The worse example I found was in an Indian market. This guy was insisting it was genuine saffron which I knew it wasn't," he says. "I bought some anyway and later, on closer inspection, it turned out to be little bits of paper shredded up and dyed red."
Smale isn't the only saffron producer in the UK. Sally Francis is a former botanist who now runs Norfolk Saffron.
"I was first interested in saffron purely for academic interest and got my very first plants in 1997 as a birthday present," she remembers. "We did manage to produce a small crop in our first year, enough for one risotto, I think."
Like Smale, Francis began multiplying up her crop year on year, until she had too much to use personally in her kitchen.
"So we went to a farmers market with our entire excess, which was just a few grams then, and we sold it all in one day!" she says.
Francis also experiments with new products using the spice, including smoked saffron.
"It's a really good way of getting a smoked flavour in vegetarian food," she explains. "It took us ages to perfect the process, and we're keeping how we do it a secret."
But Francis' most interesting use of the crop has to be her orange and saffron liqueur. Made using a base spirit of gin, you could use it in cocktails as you would, say, Grand Mariner.
"We called it 'King Harry' because it's got a very bright golden colour and the Norfolk nickname for a goldfinch is King Harry," she adds.
But back to Smale, who, as I leave gives me a few corms that I plant in a pot when I get home. Who knows, maybe I'll be harvesting my own—admittedly very small—saffron supply next year?