Cornish Saffron – a Labour of Love

Brian Eyers, and his wife Margaret, moved to the Roseland Peninsula in 2014 and began growing saffron crocuses the following year. It was the start of a wonderful love story, not just of saffron’s fascinating links to Cornwall and of the incredibly dainty crocus itself, but also of the delicate methods required to harvest the spice, its wonderful versatility in the kitchen and, most importantly, how it’s given them the new start they needed…

It’s a typical windswept October morning in Cornwall, and a stone’s throw from the  Driftwood Hotel and The Hidden Hut, looking across Gerrans Bay on the Roseland Peninsula is where you’ll find Brian and Margaret Eyers – in their small sheltered field at first light, doubled over, delicately picking tiny lilac crocus flowers. This is the start of the Cornish Saffron harvest – even in the 21st Century achieved lovingly by hand, with not a single machine in sight.

“Cornwall has been my home for as long as I can remember – I was a teenager when my family moved here back in the mid 1970s,” says Brian. “I’ve always loved the land and sea, the wildlife,  native plants and horticulture; it’s what I grew up with and I have worked on the land and in horticulture my whole life, researching and growing unusual native and non-native plants.”

Indeed, after a successful 32 years at one of Cornwall’s large horticultural estates, an unexpected redundancy for Brian offered him and Margaret the opportunity to start afresh; a new business venture beginning to bubble in the backs of their minds. “We upped sticks, moved to the Roseland Peninsula, having found a wonderful house with a little bit of land, and I set about doing some research. Of course, one tends to fall back on what you know, and for me that was obvious: Cornwall,  unusual plants, and an opportunity for commercial production.”

It wasn’t long before Brian came across saffron and immediately he fell in love with its history: how the Phoenicians came to Cornwall hundreds of years ago from the Mediterranean and Persia, and exchanged the spice and flower bulbs for Cornish-mined tin and copper; how there were once saffron meadows and fields across the county up until about 120 years ago, presumably grown and enjoyed locally until  cheaper imports arrived from Iran and Spain.

“Growing saffron is labour intensive, that’s for sure,” says Brian. “No amount of mechanisation will speed up the process of production. The only machines we’ve got are our elbows,” he laughs, “and that’s probably why we were the first in Cornwall to introduce ‘commercial’ production back in 2015.”

“That first year was a total experiment and what we did harvest wasn’t great,” Brian recalls. “We gave some to a couple of friends to try out. Fortunately, they were honest enough to tell us that the saffron didn’t taste of anything! We went back to the drawing board, did some more research and revised our process. It turns out that saffron, like wine, matures and improves with time… a chemical reaction needs to occur  within the stigma in order to create the desired flavour, aroma and colour. The entire process of picking, plucking, drying and maturing is incredibly niche and all consuming. Even the timing is essential in terms of when to harvest, down to the time of day, although I’m glad to say that the flowers themselves are pretty hardy,” he explains.  “We learnt a lot in that first year – and we’ve kept on experimenting and refining our techniques ever since – to make sure we continue to produce the very best.”

 

And that they must do – as Cornish Saffron is sought after by some of the best known chefs and producers in the country.  Tarquin Leadbetter is a huge fan who took Brian and Margaret’s entire crop for two years running in order to produce the stunning Tarquin’s Cornish Crocus Gin.  And until lockdown in March, the Eyers were also supplying many top restaurants in Cornwall and sourcing a number of new local partnerships.

“The food and drink scene in Cornwall is a very exciting place right now,” he says. “We have the best places to eat, the finest produce of anywhere in the UK, people who are keen to work together and an abundance of talent – both producers and chefs. Great chefs attract great chefs and all of them want to be here and thrive on our produce. Of course, this year has been incredibly tough, but we’re resilient and you find new ways to work and survive,’ he notes. “In fact, just before lockdown, we were at a turning point in our own business – deciding whether to stay ticking along nicely, or look to expand.  We’ve taken the last eight months to plan our future and we’ve a lot to look forward to.  There’s a new product on the horizon – growing fennel pollen for seasoning, alongside a greater range of herbs and spices, and we also keep bees.  We’ve definitely enough in the pipeline to keep us out of mischief.  But Cornish Saffron will always be my first love; “ he says. “It’s such a versatile little spice which can be used in sweet and savoury recipes, as well as deliciously refreshing drinks. And I’ll always be grateful that it set me on my new business adventure!”

A few of Brian’s favourites

Favourite recipe using Cornish Saffron:
Probably in a fish paella, but I also love it in poached pears and in rich and creamy rice pudding.

Favourite day out:
On the beach with the grandchildren, and once they’ve returned home, a meal at the Driftwood Hotel on the Roseland.

Favourite place in Cornwall:
Creek Stephen, right below our home.

Cornish Saffron is sold at the Great Cornish Food Store and also features in our Keen Cook’s Pantry gift hamper which you can purchase on line here

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