Making Of A Town In Europa; History Of Saffron Walden
It is a small mystery how saffron arrived in the English town of Walden and worked such influence that the town became known as Saffron Walden.
The weakest hunch centers around Sir Thomas Smith, a secretary of state under the great Elizabeth, who in 1513 was born in Walden. For this fact to be of any merit to our tale, Sir Thomas would have to have been born with a spade and several corms clutched in his wee fists, since saffron was already a fairly important cash crop by the time he first saw the light of day. A more probable story opens around 1350, during the reign of Edward III, with saffron taking quite well to England’s eastern coast. The stars of this story are sometimes the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, who are said to have plundered bushels of corms and brought them home from northern Palestine after the loss of Acre in the last Crusade. However, the trouble with this version is that the knights were known to have sown their corms only on farms belonging to their order, and these were in the northern country.
On top of that, they were a tight-fisted bunch and kept their saffron supply to themselves. In his Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics, and Discoveries of the English Nation (1598) Richard Hakluyt promotes a more egalitarian character:
It is reported at Saffron Walden that a Pilgrim, purposing to do good to his country, stole a head of Saffron and hid the same in his Pilgrim’s staff, which he had made hollow before of purpose, and so he brought this root into the realm with a venture of his life; for, if he had been taken, by the law of the country from whence it came, he had died for the fact.
A brave and plucky English lad would certainly have warmed the hearts of Hakluyt’s readers, but many now consider him a rather shameless storyteller.
Reason would lead to a much baser and boring saga: with the Saffron War waging in Basle and greedy pirates trolling the seas, an enterprising farmer or two would surely have latched on to the idea that a killing could be gained from the spice-daffy rich and noble with a homegrown crop of saffron. If Swiss farmers could muster up a steady supply, why not the English from their blessedly fruitful countryside?
As for how the corms traveled from their sunny native lands to the dank British isle in the first place, it is more than likely they made the voyage centuries before in the pockets of homesick Roman soldiers, though it probably took the Crusades – or pilgrims coming home from their travels – to remind the natives that the pretty autumn flower blooming in their midst was actually worth something.
(And once the Crusades made it safe – as well as fashionable – to travel to the Holy Lands, pilgrims did hurry home with a wealth of exotic souvenirs hidden in hollowed-out walking sticks and tied beneath the conveniently heavy folds of skirts and veils) Then our industrious farmers would only have had to dig up the corms that had naturalized, and after some years of careful cultivation, they would have realized the beginnings of thriving saffron trade.
At one time or another, saffron was planted all around England, particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk, but nowhere did it last so long, nor bloom as prolifically, as it did in the eastern coastal province of Essex. This part of England had once been submerged under a primordial sea whose ancient floor was thick with the oozy skeletal remains of tiny Protozoic foraminiferas; when the tide retreated, the calcium-rich ooze remained, drying and hardening to form chalk that lightened the soil and improved its drainage. Buried in such a delightful medium, the corms were kept almost as dry as they would have been on shimmering Crete, as content to flourish in abundant radiance as they did on the sunbaked Persian plains.
But, frankly, that saffron blossomed so comfortably outside its native lands is not such a noteworthy occurrence. After all, it had settled in Switzerland quite nicely and for many years gave no outward signs of missing either broiling heat or the near-drought conditions of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Yet the Swiss crop did eventually fail, whereas the English crop – with the exception of a couple of ultimate autumn rains – never truly did. And that is indeed a remarkable feat that can be attributed only to a certain madness that is known to affect the British population. The English have many attributes, but chief among them has to be their inclination to garden (of which farming should be seen as only a larger manifestation of their particular mania to grow things). They don’t stop at just growing plants, either.
They collect and draw and at seemingly inexhaustible length ponder a plant’s habits, residence, character, and manner as if what they really wish to do is to crawl right inside even the most delicate stem in expectation of finding the elusive truths of earthly life nestled sweetly at its core.
When one looks closely at the matter, it seems that nearly every person capable of writing in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries took quill to paper and recorded their considerable opinion of just how and when saffron should be grown. There is, to start, Gilbert of Hayland’s proclamation that ‘‘saffron is related to wisdom,’’ followed by John Gerard, in his famous Herbal, who declares with great authority how the corms ‘‘doth first rise out of the ground nakedly in September, and his long small grassy leaves shortly after, never bearing flour and leave at once.’’
The Rev. William Harrison, the rector of the parish five miles down the road from Walden, made this contribution to the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, a long description of how the neighboring saffron farmers, who were known as Corkers, cultivated their fields: The heads of saffron are raised [turned out of the ground] in July, either with plow or spade; and being scored from their Rose and severed from such headers as are engendered of them since the last setting, they are entered again out of hand by ranks or rows; and, being covered with molds, they rest in the earth, where they cast forth little filets and small rotes like unto a scallion, until September; at the beginning of which month, ye ground is pared and all weeds and grasses that growth upon the same removed, to the intent that nothing may annoy the flower when his time doth come to rise . . . in the later end of the aforesaid month, the flower beginneth to appear. . . . These flowers are gathered in the morning, before the rising of the Sunne, which would cause them to welke; and the chives are picked from the flowers, these latter are thrown into the dunghill, the [chives] being dried upon little kelly [kilns] covered with strained canvasses over a soft fire; whereby, and by the weight that is laid upon them, they are dried and pressed into cakes, and then bagged up for ye benefit of their owners. This is but one (although the most dominant) of the many tracts printed at the time to argue the fine differences in planting techniques, of which the most agreed upon appears to have been to sow the corms three inches apart in rows that were themselves three inches apart. Points of contention swirled instead around how long a field should rest between sowing – with some advocating seven years and others voting for five. Harrison, who seems to have been the most carefully observant of men, stated in a later edition of the Chronicles that it should be twenty years between plantings to assure the most potent crop. All acknowledged, however, that a field should not be in production for more than three years. It should then be turned under and rejuvenated with a crop of barley. The Honorable Charles Howard (no less a personage than the eldest son of the Earl of Suffolk, master of Audley End, and an original Fellow of the Royal Society!) weighed in on the matter in his saffron account by siding with the seven-year crowd, for that seemed in his experience to be enough time to assure that an acre would ‘‘yield, at least, twelve pounds of good Saffron. . .. and in some years twenty pounds.’’
Howard goes on to give very detailed computing of the expenses involved in producing saffron, but in his reckoning, the expense and considerable labor are offset by the guaranteed princely profit of some twenty pounds sterling per annum.
Such was England’s success that there seems to have been only one major crop failure – and that was blamed not on technique but on divine retaliation. The trouble began in 1556; for two hundred years’ autumn had brought a purple blush to Walden’s fields, and this year was no exception. In fact, the yield had been so great that in the Reverend Harrison’s account, ‘‘Some of the town's men of Walden gave one-half of the flours for picking off the other and sent them ten to twelve miles aboard into the countries.’’ However other farmers were not inclined to share their wealth; on the contrary, they wished to restrict further saffron production to keep the prices (and their own profits) up. Instead of being thankful for their abundant crop, these farmers went about Walden murmuring, in a most blasphemous manner [that] ‘‘God did now shite Saffron’’; . . . so the Lord, considering their unthank fullness, gave them ever since such scarcities as the greatest murmurers have now the least store and most of them are either worn out of occupying or remain scarce able to maintain their grounds without the help of other men.
It is not recorded in what form God expressed his wrath – whether it was untimely rain or frost or the ground turning sour – but it took Walden close to twenty years to recuperate from this disgraceful episode. By 1586, the town was again being described as standing ‘‘in the midst of fields smiling with the most beautiful crocus,’’ and in written accounts was generally referred to with full patriotic pride and glory as Saffron Walden.
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Willard P. Secrets of saffron: the vagabond life of the world's most seductive spice. Beacon Press; 2002 Apr 11.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Engineering in Gonabad University of Medical Sciences, Razavi Khorasan, Iran