From Norfolk: the world’s most precious spice…

From her family smallholding in Burnham Market, botanist Sally Francis produces some of the best quality saffron in the world. KL magazine enters the exotic world of Norfolk Saffron.

Based near Burnham Market, Norfolk Saffron is England’s first modern-day commercial saffron producer, and is run by Sally Francis, an Oxford-educated botanist with a doctorate in plant pathology. She’s ably assisted by her family during busy periods in the year, especially by her mother Jill – who’s probably the most experienced saffron picker in England!

“Actually, I have my mother to thank for getting the whole thing started,” says Sally. “She bought me 20 saffron corms as a birthday present back in 1997, though I had no intention of going into commercial production at the time. Over the years, the stock of plants multiplied, and by 2009 we had far too much saffron to use ourselves so we took some to market – and were astounded by the enthusiastic response we received.”

Using her expertise in ‘alternative crops’ to take things forward and aided by funding from the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE), Sally founded Norfolk Saffron.

“You don’t usually associate Norfolk with saffron,” says Sally, “but we discovered that saffron was once very important locally – and it had a reputation for excellent quality too. After more than ten years’ work in experimentation and development, we’re really proud to be the first people to offer Norfolk-grown saffron for sale once again.”

For those not familiar with saffron, it’s actually the rich, deep red stigmas of the flower Crocus sativus. They can only be picked by hand, and it’s estimated that it takes around 250,000 stigmas to make just half a kilo of saffron. Therein lies the secret of its status as the world’s most precious spice.

And though Burnham Market might seem a long way from India and Iran, Sally’s award-winning saffron is demonstrably the best in the world. Independent laboratory testing has confirmed that it conforms to ISO 3632 category I, which is the top (and rigorously monitored) international grade for saffron quality. It’s a result that puts Norfolk Saffron in very good company – with the very best Spanish saffron (only premium Mancha grades and Coupe/Coupé grade) and the finest Iranian/Persian saffron (Sargol grade).

“Several of our customers and many professional chefs have commented on the quality and potency of our saffron,” says Sally. “It’s very strong, and you’ll find a tiny amount will go a very long way!”

Based on the edge of marshland with nationally-important conservation status and in the centre of the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it’s not surprising that Norfolk Saffron makes a number of efforts to protect the environment.

“We don’t use herbicides, fungicides or pesticides on our saffron,” says Sally. “We care for our soil properly, building up and maintaining fertility whilst preventing compaction and erosion. Also, the saffron itself is grown in a crop rotation, which makes it sustainable.”

Last year, Norfolk Saffron secured a grant from the local Sustainable Development Fund for buying seed-sowing equipment, and alongside the saffron, Sally is now growing ‘pollen and nectar mixes’ to help bumblebees and other insects, and seed-bearing plants to help feed birds in winter. Every purchase of Norfolk Saffron contributes to the ongoing costs of this conservation work.

The glass jars containing the precious spice are recyclable, and for the last two years all orders have used a new biodegradable packing product, specially made in Norfolk using expanded maize, straw, dried flowers and leaves.

In addition to growing and producing world-class saffron, Norfolk Saffron also makes a deliciously unique orange and saffron liqueur called King Harry and has just introduced an exciting idea for home bakers in the form of Saffron Flour – an idea originally developed by the Victorians.

“It’s simply a blend of two ingredients – flour and powdered Norfolk Saffron,” says Sally. “It looks just like ordinary flour until it’s made into a dough or a cake mixture, and then the wonderful sunny colour of saffron and its delicious flavour develops.”

For more information on Sally and Norfolk Saffron, please see the website at www.norfolksaffron.co.uk.

Pictures supplied by Sally Francis, Norfolk Saffron

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