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Meet the maker: the farmer growing saffron in Norfolk

Sally Francis is resurrecting a forgotten British tradition by growing this precious spice in Norfolk.

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Sally and her mother, Jill, remove the stigmas from the flowers.

Photograph by Chris Ridley
By Farida Zeynalova
Published 26 Mar 2022, 06:00 GMT

When Sally Francis was a university student in 1997, she asked her parents for a saffron plant for her birthday. She planted it at the family smallholding near Burnham Market, on the north coast of Norfolk, but that first harvest only produced a teaspoon’s worth of saffron. 

After buying more plants, the years that followed proved more and more fruitful. She shared the saffron among family and friends, and the surplus was sold at a local craft fair, which proved hugely successful. By 2009, she had enough of the spice to launch a business, Norfolk Saffron, producing an extra-strong, Grade I variety, grown in one of the most surprising parts of the world. 

“I’m a botanist, so plants are my passion,” Sally says, from the farm that’s been in her family since 1934. “I had low expectations for saffron because I’d read that although it used to be grown in Britain in the Middle Ages, the climate is all wrong now so it can’t be done.” 

Around 400 years ago, the UK was a hotspot for saffron production. When Sally researched the subject, she was astonished to discover that the seaside port she can see from her field, Burnham Overy Staithe, used to ship locally grown saffron to the Low Countries — and that she’d therefore inadvertently resurrected a long-lost industry. 

It’s believed saffron originated from Crete, whose mild winters and dry summers create ideal growing conditions. Today, Iran, India, Spain and Greece are the main producers, with Iran responsible for the vast majority of the world’s supply. So, how does a tiny farm in Norfolk prevail against the inclement English weather to produce Grade I saffron?

It’s to do with “replicating the climate of Crete as best as we can with the conditions we have,” says Sally, declining to elaborate any further on her commercially sensitive secrets. But Norfolk being one of the driest areas in the country is certainly a factor, she adds. 

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Sally Francies launched Norfolk Saffron in 2009, producing an extra-strong, Grade I saffron.

Photograph by Chris Ridley

The purple-flowered saffron crocus likes to tear up the floral rulebook — it buds during autumn and winter (as opposed to spring and summer) and becomes dormant in the summer (rather than winter). A typical day during harvest, which takes place between October and November and lasts around four to six weeks, sees Sally start gathering the flowers as early as 7am. 

“The morning is best,” she says. “That’s one of the factors that influences quality.” Having gathered the largest buds — those on the cusp of opening — Sally spends the next few hours performing the fiddly task of removing the stigmas from the flowers, helped by her mother Jill and friend Mary. She then places them in a dryer she had specially made. The result? Threads of vibrant, potent saffron that’s consistently Grade I — the highest level. 

“I believe it’s the only spice that provides flavour, colour and aroma,” Sally says. “It’s so precious because a lot of effort goes into producing even just one gram.” 

“Our saffron is as strong as the best from anywhere in the world”, she adds, noting that the Norfolk kind is a little sweeter than most, which is due to the UK climate. “A lot of recipes are written with low-grade saffron in mind — they ask for one gram to make a loaf but if you used ours, you wouldn’t be able to eat it — it’d be way too strong!” 

Saffron is used in a variety of dishes around the world, from paellas and risottos to ice creams and soups, but Sally’s personal favourite is a saffron brioche she found in an 18th-century recipe book, which she makes using broken threads left over from the harvest. Her farm, less than two acres in size, isn’t open to visitors, so she sells her saffron — as well as products including saffron flour and liqueurs — via her online shop. She has plans to expand her range. You could say she’s breathing a new lease of life into this long-forgotten British spice, one bright red thread at a time. 

Published in Issue 15 (spring 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller

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