Saturday, 11 July 2015

Saffron Walden

Months ago M and I visited Audley House, one of the English Heritage collection, and passed roads signs to this market town. It is about a 20 min drive from Cambridge.

The Tudor looking town hall with Georgian addition stands over the market square.
Saffron is one of those spices that conjures up pictures of hot Arabian nights so we wondered why a village in the east of England would have this name. We decided to visit one weekend to see if it was full of yellow cottages, spice houses or if there were acres of crocus flowers in the surrounding rolling fields.
No saffron to be seen in the rolling fields as we drove in but there were a few yellow/orange houses.
The Walden part of the name is very old - there is a ruin in the town called Walden Castle so it was probably the family name of the movers and shakers in early Norman times.

It was a drizzly sort of day but there were still lots of people wandering around the market stalls.  I stopped and bought a fabulous foccacia and giant vegie samosas (two different meals!) at at bread stall there. The owner said they are trying to get into the Cambridge markets too so I'll be keeping an eye out for them.
The embossed plaster work is a bit of a thing around the village.
This thought to be Cromwell's headquarters at the beginning of the civil war.
The town really came into prominence in the civil war years, it's said that Cromwell had his head quarters here for a while.  The puritans had a big influence and the Quaker church is still a big part of life here.  The Friends school has produced most of the town's famous folk. It holds regular vintage and antique fairs that are well advertised around the county.

Maple and Willow found a neat little boutique with very well priced pretties. After looking through an ancient second hand book store and a second hand goods store located in the building that Cromwell used for his headquarters we wandered up to the huge church.  We arrived as the new town Mayor and her newly blessed councilors left and had countless photos on the stairs.  The rain started up again so we scurried off to find another entry.
The church looks big enough to be a Cathedral but isn't. 
The stained glass was glowing even though it was so grey outside.
A very round-head sort of religious piece - see how far away the king is from Christ.
Left: front door recently exited by the new Mayor and her parade.  Right: Beautiful stained glass runs the length of the church
 The tummies were rumbling so we went back to a very cute looking Pub we had seen, the Cross keys, and were pleased to find that the menu was very modern - and delicious!
Loving the corner seats. little boutique (Ruby Room) just across the road. Path to the Fairycroft car park behind the girls.
The building is over 850 yrs old and is said to be haunted by Cromwell's mistress - not so puritan then?
The food was really interesting. My mushroom pie had a bread crust and a delicious truffle sauce served with it.
No saffron specialties though.
Eventually I asked in a rather niffty bottle/kitchen shop just off the market square about locally grown saffron and was directed to the information centre on the square. They were selling little golden tin boxes of locally grown saffron - £10 for about 20 strands. According to a Telegraph article from Nov 2014(quoted below), a Mr David Smale tried growing some in his backyard then found a medieval text on the subject in the local library. His Saffron sells for £15 for 20g in Fortnum and Masons.
Left: Great public loos in the library too.        Right: SW coat of arms - spot the crocus - on a rubbish bin.
I wish I could say that the saffron rice I made that night was worth every penny - but I really have a hopeless palate for this spice and struggled to smell let alone taste any difference. Mind you I think I botched its use, after reading  'The Saffron Trail' by Rosanna Ley I think I should have soaked the stamen in wine or something(Oh Maggie how I miss your Verjuice) for 30 mins or so before using.  I'll have to try that another time. The Samosas however were very good.
Photo from the Telegraph - Rex Features By 11:54PM GMT 05 Nov 2014

Saffron Walden is a very pretty little town with plenty of pay and display parking a short walk from the centre, lots of pretty gardens and interesting shops. A wonderful weekend outing.

A holiday read - set in Morocco and Cornwall with threads of twisted family secrets that never quite get unraveled. Touches on US pacifist movement during the Vietnam war years, saffron growing in Cornwall, photography, cooking school in Marrakesh and of course a few Mills and Boon romance movements - both past and present.

Putting saffron back into Saffron Walden

With the help of a medieval text, an Essex farmer has revived a tradition in the heartland of production in Tudor times

Saffron has returned to the fields of England for the first time in 200 years — and only a stone’s throw from the town of Saffron Walden, the heart of British production in Tudor times.
David Smale, a farmer, has cultivated his crop at a secret location in Essex.
Saffron-growing died out in Britain as the painstaking harvesting methods became too expensive to compete with cheap imports from Iran and Kashmir.
However, Mr Smale is determined to revive the centuries-old tradition and grow his business into a full-scale commercial enterprise.
With a gram (0.035oz) of spice selling for up to £75, saffron is more expensive than gold because the harvesting is so laborious. Each crocus flower yields just three stigma, which are picked by hand then dried to create the saffron strands.

“I live in Essex and my family has a connection to Cornwall, two places that were big on saffron production centuries ago.
“I looked into who was growing saffron and to my surprise I found there was no one doing it. I was told the practice had died out a few hundred years ago which I thought was ridiculous, so I decided to give it a go.”
He added: “For the first few years I had some successes and some disasters but there was no one to turn to for advice – I was learning as I went along.
“The turning point came when I found a medieval text for growing saffron in the archives of the library at Saffron Walden.
“It dated back to the 1600s and confirmed everything I had learnt so I knew I was doing it right.”
It was then that he decided to turn his hobby into a business, English Saffron.
“Each year we get bigger and bigger and by next season we are hoping to be able to employ people.
“To have that industry back in Essex after all these years is amazing.” As well as tending to his crop of crocuses, David runs a geophysics consultancy.
The crocuses are planted in summer then harvested in late autumn. Tens of thousands of flowers have to be hand picked at just the right moment then dissected to remove the three red stigmas from each one.
The strands are dried on racks for 24 hours then put into storage containers, ready for packing.
A 0.2g packet of Mr Smale’s saffron sells in Fortnum & Mason for £15.

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