Saffron is the most expensive dye stuff in the world. It has a history infused with legend and romance: Cleopatra would bathe in it, Ancient Egyptians would sacrifice it to their gods, reference to it can be found in a 10th century healing manual and in the 14th century it sparked a 14 week war. Its ability to dye hair, textiles, even fingernails a deep, glowing yellow has been exploited to gain status since Roman times.

It has a contemplative side too. Theravada Buddhist monks dress in saffron robes, while for Hindus the colour represents light and the quest for knowledge. For Sikhs too the colour is meaningful and appears on the Nishan Sahib (the triangular flag that marks Sikh places of worship). But across all times and places the origin of this precious dye remains the same – the dried stigmas of the crocus sativus linnaeus.

Grown in Spain, Iran, Greece, Kashmir and Morocco, harvesting it is, and always has been, a task laborious in the extreme. Too delicate for machines, saffron threads are extracted from blooms by hand and it takes 115,000 flowers to produce a single pound of saffron.

In Tudor times, England was said to produce the finest saffron and it gave its name to Saffron Waldon in Essex where the yellow breads and cakes are still a local delicacy. And with thanks to the efforts of people like David Smale, they can be baked with English saffron once more. David, founder of English Saffron and a geophysicist by profession, is one of a handful of individuals reviving the tradition. Sally Francis, an Oxford-educated botanist with a doctorate in plant pathology is another. On her smallholding in Norfolk she produces top international grade saffron and says her mother Jill is probably the most experienced saffron picker in England...

To read this article in full, order your digital copy of Selvedge issue 57 here.

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