This feature first appeared in Coast magazine in 2016

Come late October, when the pink-footed geese have returned to winter in Norfolk and most of the county’s farmers are putting up their feet, saffron grower Sally Francis is at her busiest. By dawn each day she’s out on her field, in time to see the sun paint the sea and sky in fuchsia hues. A narrow strip of water meadows and saltmarshes separates her family farm from the harbour mouth and sand dunes at Burnham Overy Staithe. But there’s little time to enjoy the view.

During peak harvest season – four to six weeks over October and November – it’s a race against time to gather the flush of purple saffron crocuses on the day they flower. Bending and rising, bending and rising, Sally and her family repeatedly fill their trugs, collecting at least a thousand flowers an hour. They then sit around their 17th-century farmhouse’s kitchen table carefully picking out the crimson stigmas – the female part of the flower that is dried to form saffron.

To obtain the best quality, the entire process needs to be carried out on the same day. ‘We’re up at daybreak and don’t finish until 2am. I’m a zombie at the end of the harvest,’ says Sally. ‘But there’s also a huge amount of excitement. It’s like having a baby. You wait the whole year for these little flowers to grow and then when it does kick off, it’s all a bit bananas!’

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Long prized for the complex honeyed flavours, aroma, and colour it gives to food, saffron is physically intensive and risky to grow. Very little of the cultivation process can be mechanised, so these little plants are largely tended by hand. Vulnerable to bad weather, thousands of flowers can be lost on one stormy day. Less than 0.5 percent of the plant is used; the rest ends up on the compost heap and it takes some 200 flowers to produce just one gram of saffron – all of which helps explain why at times this spice has been worth more than its weight in gold.

Highly valued, saffron has been prone to fakery since it was first cultivated millennia ago in Crete. Today unscrupulous traders pass safflower off as saffron. Even legitimate producers sometimes leave stamen and styles in with the stigmas, which makes up extra weight to sell, but leads to poorer quality saffron.

By selling only the stigmas and using meticulous picking and drying techniques, Sally has ensured that Norfolk Saffron hits the highest grade in independent laboratory testing. Her saffron is on a level with the finest ‘Coupé’ grade Spanish saffron and ‘Sargol’ grade Persian saffron, and is so potent that only half as much is needed for recipes as lower graded saffron. This quality produce has won the coastal company numerous awards.

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Compared with the goliath saffron industries in Spain and Iran, Sally’s success might seem an anomaly. But the spice was once widely cultivated in the UK. Not that Sally knew this when she first started to grow saffron. An Oxford-educated botanist, Sally was just finishing up her PhD in 1997 when her mother, knowing her interest in weird and wacky plants, bought her 20 saffron corms for her 24th birthday. Over the next decade, under Sally’s green fingers, the corms multiplied.

‘We got to the stage where we had so much saffron from our little garden plot, we couldn’t eat it all. So we took some to the Burnham Market Craft Fair in 2009 and it went down a storm,’ Sally recalls. Thanks to funding from the Rural Development Programme for England, Sally was able to make the jump from hobby to business, planting another 20,000 corms in Norfolk Saffron’s first year.

But the transition to field-scale still felt like a shot in the dark. In the sheltered environment of the garden, with Sally’s botanical expertise, the crocuses had flourished. But Sally wondered whether they could survive in the harsh open field, so far north of where they are more typically grown and in a coastal climate (the famous saffron regions of La Mancha in Spain and Khorasan in Iran are about as far away from sea as is possible in their respective countries).

That was before Sally began to dig into the historical archives. Through tithes, wills and records of field names, she discovered that in Tudor times North Norfolk had had a substantial saffron industry. In fact, export records showed that production thrived to such an extent that there was enough left over to sell overseas. Now-sleepy coastal villages such as Burnham and Blakeney were once thriving ports, from which ships loaded with thousands of pounds’ worth of saffron sailed to the Continent.

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Saffron cultivation in England died off by the early 19th century. But Sally has brought this lost crop back to this part of the world using traditional cultivation methods: ‘A Tudor grower would recognise everything I do,’ she says, highlighting how she doesn’t use herbicides, fungicides or pesticides and looks after her soil through crop rotation.

It helps that Sally’s farm is part of a unique ecosystem. Because it is situated on the coast, winters are relatively mild and sea mists, or sea frets as they’re known in the area, ensure the ground receives a steady, gentle supply of water. Then there’s the unique soil, a mix between dry land and the reclaimed marshes beyond her field. Designated a SSSI protected conservation area, these marshes are covered in the summer months with samphire and sea-lavender. ‘I’m a firm believer in the French concept of terroir. The coastal climate has a big influence on the saffron’s qualities. You can smell the sea on the plot, the salt air, it all affects the saffron and you can taste that,’ claims Sally.

The local environment has been good to Sally’s saffron crop and she feels a responsibility in turn to protect the natural world around her. In contrast to many overseas saffron farms that are intensively planted without a hint of native vegetation, Sally’s saffron is grown alongside specially sown, bumble bee-friendly plants. A properly laid hedge provides shelter for birds and other wildlife. ‘As a botanist, it is really important to me. I think reinvesting some of the money made from saffron into these things is the right thing morally.’

As Norfolk Saffron has grown – from ad hoc sales at farmers markets to an online business with additional products including smoked saffron, saffron flour and orange saffron liqueur – Sally has had to give more thought to the eco-friendliness of her packaging too. She avoids bubblewrap and polystyrene, instead protecting her mail-order products with Leafil®, an attractive blend of popped maize, barley straw and dried flowers put together by a Norfolk-based company. ‘If you put the whole thing on the compost heap, there would be nothing left,’ Sally says. ‘I wish more companies would do it. There’s just so much unnecessary plastic around.’

Of course, by bringing this lost spice back to North Norfolk, Sally is also helping others reduce their carbon footprint. Through companies like hers, Brits can now buy saffron with zero air miles – and it’s this thought that helps Sally get through the manic harvest season. Well, that and the promise of delicious saffron buns.

First appeared in Coast in 2016.