Just mad about Saffron

PUBLISHED: 15:01 19 December 2014 | UPDATED: 15:05 19 December 2014

Brother and sister saffron team David Smale and Penny Attwood, with Mark Starte of Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre.

Brother and sister saffron team David Smale and Penny Attwood, with Mark Starte of Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre.


A brother and sister have teamed up to put the spice back into Saffron Walden.

The precious golden red stigmas thrived here in the 16th and 17th centuries thanks to the town’s favourable soil and climate, causing it be renamed from Chipping Walden.

Since then, though, the flowering bulb has been but a namesake – until 15 years ago geophysicist David Smale stumbled across the plant and, with the help of a medieval text, started cultivating his knowledge on this notoriously difficult flowerer.

“I wanted to bring it back to Essex. I couldn’t believe no one was growing it in the county,” he said.

The myth perpetuates that saffron only thrives in hot countries; in fact, the spice is one of the few plants that can grow at all in hot soil. It is easy enough to grow it, says David, but flowering is another matter, with the cultivation, plucking, piling and drying of saffron stigmas painstaking, labour-intensive work.

“I’ve been researching it for fifteen years and only this year do I think I’ve nailed it!” said David.

Penny Attwood got involved right from the outset, sensing her brother had a “very good idea”, and now takes care of the business side, while David continues with the cultivation of up to 200,000 saffron plants, on three different plots in Essex.

“We’d love to grow it in Saffron Walden itself, but there’s little land available and it’s very unaffordable to buy a plot here,” said David.

Penny, who says the spice is more expensive than gold itself, has made it into a truly family affair, with her three children, who are all in their 20s, taking care of everything from photography and design to digging.

“It’s taken over my life,” she said. “I even wake up dreaming about saffron!”

The tins of saffron, which contain at least thirty flowers, each with around four stigmas, are sold in Fortnum & Mason, Partridges, River Cottage canteen, and Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre, priced at £9.95.

For more information, go to englishsaffron.co.uk.


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