Nicola here. Today I am talking about one of my favourite spices, saffron. I absolutely love saffron flavouring in my food and when I read recently that saffron was being grown in England for the first time in 200 years I was quite excited. English saffron tastes different from imported saffron. It has a honey sweetness and scent that offsets saffron’s slightly bitter under taste. This adds a very distinctive flavour to all sorts of recipes from those involving fish to cakes and even potatoes.
Saffron is obtained from Crocus Sativus and it was once
a flourishing industry in England. In 1597 Gerard wrote in his Herbal "Saffron groweth plentifully in Cambridgeshire, Saffron Walden and other places thereabouts as corne in the fields".
The “home” of saffron was Saffron Walden in Essex (I guess the clue is in the name) where there was a particularly favourable soil and climate. Up until the 16th century the town was simply called Walden, and then Chipping Walden once a market was introduced in the medieval period. When the saffron trade became very lucrative the town was renamed in honour of its most famous product. The wealth derived from selling Saffron made the town rich and it boasts some stunning architecture.
During the period Saffron had many uses in medicines, as a condiment, in perfume, as an aphrodisiac, and as an expensive yellow dye. The golden orange colouring of saffron was unstable, however, and soon faded to a buttery yellow. Traditionally the wearing of saffron coloured cloth was restricted to the nobility. They also used a saffron-based perfume on their hair and as an air freshener! On the left is a picture of a saffron-coloured Regency gown.
Almost from the start, however, the production of saffron in Essex was threatened by puritan sentiment. Saffron Walden was the headquarters of Cromwell’s New Model Army during the English Civil War and he visited the town in 1647, staying at the Sun Inn where the ghosts of parliamentarian soldiers are still said to haunt the rooms and passageways. Saffron Walden also has strong connections to America as it was from there that many puritans emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1640s. Puritans disapproved of the saffron; they considered it too fancy and preferred more plain, un-spiced food.
The import of cheaper saffron from Kashmir and Iran in the late 18th century put an end to Saffron Walden’s trade. Harvesting saffron was expensive and labour intensive since each crocus yielded only 3 stigma which had to be hand picked in the morning and then dried in a warm, dark environment to produce the saffron strands. Also the elite market, the Georgian and Regency upper classes, those who could afford saffron, were turning to new exotic imports such as coffee, chocolate and vanilla. The town turned to malting beer instead as it was cheaper to produce.
A gram of saffron sells for up to £75 (over $100 dollars) for 0.03% of an ounce, making it more expensive than gold. David Smale, the farmer who has re-introduced the growing of saffron at Saffron Walden bases his techniques on a 16th century manuscript he found in the town library. He recommends the following recipe:
Saffron and mackerel pate
For the infusion:
20 saffron strands
3 tsp almost-boiling water
For the pate:
4 fresh mackerel fillets
2 tsp orange oil
200g/7oz low-fat soft cream cheese
Salt and black pepper
55g/2oz unsalted butter
1 Lightly crush the saffron strands in a pestle and mortar. Transfer to a lightproof container – a ceramic ramekin with a lid, or similar. Pour in the water, cover and leave to infuse for several hours or, ideally, overnight in the fridge.
2 Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Lay the mackerel on a large sheet of foil on a baking tray, season and sprinkle with a tsp of the infusion, a knob of butter and the orange oil. Wrap the fish in the foil, bake for 15 minutes then remove from the oven and leave to cool in the foil.
3 Flake the flesh into a blender and add all the juices from the foil parcel, retrieving any saffron filaments. Add the cream cheese, a little more seasoning and another tsp of the infusion. Blend for a minute or two, until smooth, and spoon into a ramekin.
4 Gently melt 55g/2oz butter in a saucepan, add the remaining tsp of the infusion and pour over the top of the pate. Refrigerate overnight, so the saffron continues infusing. Serve with warm crusty bread or oatcakes.
Are you a saffron fan? Do you enjoy cooking with it, or do you like the rich golden colour of it for clothes or the scent of it for perfume? Or is there a different spice you prefer?