Thursday, 14 September 2017

Mad About Saffron

Older readers of this blog may remember Donovan- he's been around on the pop/folk scene for over fifty years - and his signature song was 'Mellow Yellow' - which begins "I'm just mad about Saffron"
I think I have only ever purchased saffron once, for a special recipe [I cannot even remember what or when that was now!] occasionally when a savoury recipe requires yellow colouring I cheat and use a bit of turmeric. Not for nothing is this spice called 'red gold'. It is so expensive and labour intensive to produce.
The stigmas have to be hand plucked from every flower - and that takes a long time. 

This spice has been prized throughout history. Cleopatra put it in her bathwater, believing it would improve lovemaking, Alexander the Great drank saffron tea, and bathed his wounds with saffron water, convinced it had healing properties. And the Romans ...well they were just mad about saffron. Although it grows better in warmer climes round the Mediterranean, they tried to grow it in every corner of their empire, even the cooler places like Britain. Hence the Essex village named Saffron Walden, a popular centre for cultivating this treasured ingredient in days gone by. 
Saffron gives Spanish Paella its golden colour, and adds a sunny aspect to French bouillabaisse and Indian Biryani. In the UK, the Cornish Saffron Buns are made from a centuries old recipe [Cornish miners used to trade their tin for this precious spice - I must watch out for that in Poldark!]
The problem now is that it is becoming more popular- but as the most expensive spice in the world, the market is being flooded with adulterated products. The genuine article should be strands which are red in colour and frayed at one end, smelling fruity and floral. Fake saffron has no smell. Real saffron, if submerged, will turn the water golden yellow. Put a little saffron on your tongue, and you should taste both sweet and bitter. 
Pure saffron costs up to £25 a gram. £25000  a kilo - which represents 85,000 stigmas. The cheaper stuff may cost less, but may include other tasteless parts of the flower, other 'floral waste' and even synthetic yellow dyes. I am not sure I want to risk my money on something which may not be pure!
An American Soldier, Keith Alaniz, has set up a company, Rumi Spices, in Afghanistan. Along with two colleagues, he felt that the people there would benefit from cultivating a crop which paid more than illegal opium. things are generally going well - but his saffron sells at 'high end' prices.
Nearer to home, we have some saffron cultivation in Britain again. Grown in Wales, English Saffron [grown in Essex and Devon] and Norfolk Saffron are three producers I know about. Sally Francis who produces Norfolk Saffron has been fascinated by these crocus corms for 20 years.

Graduating from Oxford, where she studied botany, she returned to the family home in North Norfolk, and asked her mother for a bag of the corms for her 25th birthday in 1997. She grew them in the garden, then took over one of the family fields which had been lying fallow. It took time and determination, but eventually she was able to set up a company producing all sorts of saffron products.
Now this award winning company produces all sorts of saffron goods - jars of the saffron threads- plain and smoked, saffron flour, and more...
Maybe I should put a jar of golden Norfolk threads on my Christmas list, so I can have a go at making saffron buns. 

Either the Cornish ones, or perhaps Bronte Aurell's Swedish Lucia Buns [I note that her Scandikitchen recipe uses ground saffron, which they sell in little sachets]
Do you use this mellow yellow ingredient in your cooking? and if so, in which recipes?


  1. I've tried cooking with saffron a couple of times but couldn't discern any particular taste. Maybe I was using dud saffron stamens, though they looked genuine enough.

  2. We bought some when it was on special in Lidl but Chris used the whole pot in one paella!!! I was aghast!


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