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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Adding the Saffron to Walden

Amongst the exotic spices grown by Stafford Allen on farms near their Liston site in the last century was Saffron. This plant has had a long association with East Anglia. We all know that Walden gained its ‘Saffron’ title from its association with the saffron crocus. It was previously known as 'Market Walden'. The ‘Saffron’ sobriquet came from its renown as a grower and supplier of Saffron in Britain in mediaeval times.

Saffron is not a natural plant. It is actually the triploid form of a species found in Eastern Greece with a striking purple flower called Crocus Cartwrightianus, and it probably appeared first in Crete in the early Bronze age. The Sumerians knew it almost 5000 years ago, and it is mentioned in Homers ‘Iliad’ and the bible. The dried stigmas of the flower were used medicinally and as a food dye, but also served as a condiment and perfume. The particular value of the spice in mediaeval times came from the belief that it was a remedy for the Plague. It also was a mediaeval 'happy-pill'. The use of a saffron-pillow' was said to ensure placid sleep. The spice has a pungent, bitter medicinal taste, but with a memorably honey-like flavour. As the colour is water-soluble, it is useless as a fabric-dye. The name saffron comes from Arabic, where the spice is known as za'fran. The word has a Semitic origin and means ‘Be Yellow’. The Saffron Crocus, or ‘Hay Saffron’ should not be confused with Meadow Saffron, which is a deadly poison. Gerard says The roots of all the sortes of mede saffrons are very hurtful to the stomache, and being eaten they kill by choaking as mushrooms do’

Saffron has been used in Britain since time immemorial, being one of the trade items that came via the Atlantic coast to Devon, Cornwall, and later the South coast ports in the ‘Phoenician’ trade-routes. It was always a fabulously expensive spice with a good trading profit, but the saffron that reached Britain was often adulterated on the way, and the British longed to be able to grow their own supply. This was already beginning to happen in other parts of Europe. It had been grown in Spain since AD900 and spread from there to Germany, Switzerland and Austria. We are told that the Saffron Crocus was introduced into this country in Edward III’s time (1327-1337), from Greece and Turkey, by returning Crusaders. Legend also has it (from Hakluyt) that a returning pilgrim secreted a corm in his staff.

Saffron would seem to have reached Market Walden soon after its’ introduction, and its free-draining chalk lands and sunny climate proved to be ideal. In 1444 it was mentioned as a titheable commodity; in 1481 saffron-gardens are mentioned in documents; in 1518 the owners of certain rude hogs were presented in legal papers, because they had been found trespassing on the saffron-beds; and the Town Records show that it was grown in the reign of Charles II., as in 1663, Pratt was rewarded with fourpence for gathering the heads that were needed to yield one pound of this valuable produce.

At its height, the industry extended across the surrounding countryside, the three-acre Saffron fields fenced around with hurdles, giving a strange purplish hue to the landscape in September. The growers, or ‘Crokers’ as they were known, selected chalky soil for their fields. The crop was planted for three seasons only, four to six inches between plants, after which the field was allowed yto lie fallow for a year. The bulbs were raised and dried after the leaves had wilted in late spring. . Planting was in July. "Warm nights, sweet dews, fat grounds and misty mornings" were prayed for, Because it is a triploid cultivar, saffron is necessarily sterile, and its flowers cannot produce any seeds, so that propagation is possible only via corms, which divide naturally, and were split whilst the corms were stored in the early summer.

The labour-intensive harvest took place in late September when the long stigmas were taken out of the plants, dried in a kiln and pressed into blocks. Up to a quarter of a million stigmas of the flowers had to be picked to make one pound of saffron. The flowers had to be hand picked by mid morning or the blossoms wilted. If the rain falls on the flowers, the harvest is ruined.

Dr Douglass gives more details on the drying of the chives in 1728:

"At the latter end of September, early in the morning, Sundays not excepted, the flowers were gathered, when the chives, that is the style and stigmas, were retained, and the rest of the flower discarded. These parts of the flower were dried upon a kiln, covered with a wire netting or a hair cloth, over which were laid several sheets of paper and weighted. This process required great care and watchfulness. After an hour the coverings were taken off, the saffron turned upside down, and then covered and weighted as before for another hour. If this operation was successful, there was nothing more to do, but simply to turn the cake over a gentle fire every half hour for twenty four hours.

Inferior chives were sprinkled with small beer to make them sweat. About five pounds of wet saffron made about one pound when dried, but in the latter part of the season six pounds were needed. The average portion of dried saffron obtained from an acre the first year was rarely over two pounds, twelve for the second year, and rather more for the third. After this third crop, the midsummer following, the roots were taken up and transplanted to new ground. The fences (round the saffron grounds) consist of what they call dead hedges, or hurdles, to keep out not only cattle of all sorts, but especially hares, which would otherwise feed on the saffron leaves during the winter".

The Dried Saffron was a valuable trading commodity, being very variable in price.

1548, 12s; 1561, 25s 1614 63s.
1631 18s. 1647 22s 1653 37s.
1663, 70s. 1665 81s 10d. 1688 83s.6d.
1689 60s 1717 26s. 6d


Walden continued the custom of presenting Saffron in a silver cup to all visiting royalty until the reign of George III. In October, 1689, in addition to the saffron, some saffron-heads and flowers were also presented to King William, for which one Henry Rider was paid the sum of 2s. However, from the start of the eighteenth Century, the fall in the price of imported saffron, and a string of poor summers in East Anglia eventually caused the demise of the industry. By the year 1790 it had entirely disappeared from the neighbourhood. Alderman Fiske was one of the last to cultivate it’ from a regard to its long association with his native town’.

Saffron production still takes place in Europe around the Mediterranean. World production of Saffron comes mostly from Spain and Iran accounting together for more than 80% of the world's production of around 300 tons a year. The only remaining saffron “industry” in Europe north of the Mediterranean is in a small Swiss village called Mund at an elevation of about 1200 m, where a few kilograms of saffron per year are produced in traditional way


Holinshed's Chronicles of England 1577 contains an account of saffron culture in England in the 16th century, contributed by Rev. William Harrison, who was rector of Radwinter, five miles from Saffron Walden, from 1571 to 1593.


"The heads of Saffron are raised in Julie either with plough raising or lined hooke and being severed from their rosse or filth and severed from such heads as are engendered of them since the last setting, they are interred again in Julie and August by ranks or rowes and being covered with moulds they rest in the earth where they cast forth little fillets and small roots like unto a scallion untill September in the beginning of which moneth the ground is pared and all the weeds and grasse that groweth upon the same removed to the intent that nothing may annoie the floure when as his time dooth come to rise.

These things being thus ordered in the latter end of the aforesaid moneth of September, the floure beginneth to appear of a whitish blue and hath in the middest thereof three chives verie red and pleasant to behold. These floures are gathered in the morning before the rising of the sonne and the chives being gathered from the floures, are dried upon little killes covered with screened canvasses upon the fire, whereby and by the weight that is laid upon them, they are dried and pressed into cakes. In good yeeres we gather four score or an hundred of wet Saffron of an acre which feeing dried dooth yeeld twentie pounds of drie and more.

The price of Saffron is commonlie about twentte shillings in monie or not so little, it is easie to see what benefit is reaped by an acre of this cominoditie towards the charges of the seller, which indeed are great but yet not so great as he shall be thereby a looser if he be anie thing diligent. For admit that the triple tillage of an acre dooth cost thirteen shillings four pence before the Saffron be set, the clodding sixteen pence, the taking of every load of stones from the same four pence, the raising of every quarter of heads sixpence and so much for cleansing them, besides the rent of ten shillings for everie acre, thirtie load of doong which is worth sixpence the load to be laid on the first yeare, for the setting three and twentie shillings and foure pence, for the paring five shillings and sixpence for the picking of a pound of wet etc.

Yea though he hire it readie set and paie ten pounds for the same, yet shall he sustain no damage, if warm weather and open season doo happen at the gathering. This also is to be noted that everie acre asketh twentie quarters of heads placed in ranks two inches one from another in long beds which conteine eight or ten foot in breadth, and after three yeeres that ground will serve well, and without compost for barlie by the space of eighteen or twentie yeeres together.

The heads also of everie acre at the raising will store an acre and a halfe of new ground which is a great advantage and it will floure eight or ten dales together, but the best saffron is gatherd at the first at which time four pounds of wet Saffron will go verie neere to make one of drie; but in the middest of five pounds of the one will make but one of the other because the Chive waneth smaller, as six at the last will do no more but yeeld one of the dried, by reason of the chive which is now very leane and hungrie, after twentie yeeres also the same ground may be set with saffron again, and in lieu of a conclusion take this for a perpetual rule, that heads coming out of a good ground will prosper best in a lighter soile; contrariwise; which is one note that our Crokers do carefulie observe

Warme nights, sweet dewes, fat grounds and misty mornings are very good for saffron; but frost and cold doe kill and keepe backe the flower or else shrinke up the chive".

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