10 July 2023 · Consuming passions
Sam Bilton is a food historian and podcaster with a passion for spices. Her book on the history of Saffron, Fool’s Gold, is available in full on ckbk. She has also written a history of gingerbread, and her next book The Philosophy of Chocolate will be published in October 2023.
By Sam Bilton
Spices are addictive. Perhaps not scientifically speaking but spices possess a fragrant ability to tantalise the appetite, to evoke memories of childhood baking or rambling through souks abundant with spices. As a lover of gingerbread, I am easily seduced by the aromas of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. But it is the scent of saffron that triumphs as my favourite spice – slightly floral with a hint of smoke capable of transporting me to the land of the Arabian Nights with its fragrant rice dishes and golden hued stews.
For years I thought of saffron as an exotic, foreign spice despite being born close to the Essex town of Saffron Walden. It was only later in life that I began to question how the world’s most expensive spice had become associated with this medieval market town. From the fifteenth to the early eighteenth centuries there was a thriving saffron industry around this town which extended to Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. In fact, if you explore county archives it transpires that saffron was grown on a small scale across southern England during this period.
Saffron strands or threads are the dried stamens of a very specific crocus, Crocus sativus. This species of flower only flowers for a few weeks in the autumn, meaning that it is a seasonal crop. Even with modern farming innovations it is extremely labour-intensive to grow. The crocus flowers must be hand-picked and the stamens diligently removed before being dried. These factors go a long way to explaining the hefty price tag this spice carries.
The big question, of course, is how on earth did saffron come to Britain’s shores? The plant is thought to have originated in the Near East. Frescoes depicting women harvesting saffron, dating from around 1629 BCE, have been discovered on the island of Santorini. Greek saffron (krokos kozanis) is still prized to this day. Curiously, Aglaia Kremezi notes that the Greeks themselves do not use this spice widely in their own cuisine (much of the saffron grown in Greece is exported). One of the areas in Greece where saffron is used in cooking is on Astypalaia. The women climb the steep hills on the island to pick and dry their own saffron which they use in their baked goods for Easter such as Cheese and Saffron Pies and spicy yellow biscuits.
There are many theories as to how saffron travelled to Britain. The Cornish like to believe that the Phoenicians exchanged saffron for tin. The legacy of this theoretical trade can be seen in the traditional Cornish Saffron Buns or Cake. The Romans have also been credited with bringing saffron with them when they invaded Britain although, like the Greeks, it was seldom used in their cookery. The most popular story is that a pilgrim travelling back from the Holy Land smuggled a saffron bulb in his staff and it was from this solitary plant that the entire British saffron industry sprung. Given that it takes between 150-200 flowers to produce a single gram of saffron this is an unlikely explanation. One bulb does not a saffron harvest make.
However saffron came to be grown in Britain it seems to have left a golden trail in its wake staining the cuisines of Southern Europe as it journeyed to our shores. Without saffron we would be bereft of the paella’s of Spain, bouillabaisse of France or the classic Risotto alla Milanese from Italy. Its Midas touch has even caressed the northern reaches of the continent. In Sweden on 13 December, the darkest day of the year, each town or village appoints a ‘Queen of the Light’ (Ljusets Drottning) who offers ‘S’ shaped saffron buns to the townsfolk to celebrate Saint Lucia.
Given the likely origin of the Crocus sativus it is no surprise that the cuisine of the Levant and Persia is infused with saffron. In Iran plain rice is elevated with saffron infusions emerging with a golden crust or a scattering of jewels in the form of pistachios, barberries and candied orange. Although Morasa’ Polov is still seen as a festive dish served at weddings, Saghar Setareh explains modern versions are far less elaborate than recipes dating from the Safavid era (1501-1736). Nevertheless, it should still turn heads when delivered to the dining table. Even when the colour is muted by other ingredients, saffron’s flavour is vital in so many Persian dishes like this Lamb Shank Braise in Saffron and Rose Water from Najmieh Batmanglij.
Saffron’s golden hues convey wealth and elegance. It was used in place of genuine gold to gild food in the medieval kitchen particularly birds like chickens or peacocks. Golden apples were served at the coronation feast of Henry IV in 1399. The ‘apples’ were in fact meatballs coated in a saffron batter. Recipes from the medieval era frequently finish with the instruction to ‘endore’ (make a bright golden colour) with egg yolks and saffron. It was also used to enliven the almond milk dishes that were served as dairy substitutes during Christian fasting periods like Lent.
Although the British saffron industry began to dwindle in the eighteenth century it has never strayed far from our kitchens. Colonial expansion through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ensured the British love of spicy food has endured. The Victorians embraced ‘curries’ inspired by the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent – even the Queen herself was a fan. Although many Victorian curry recipes are best buried with the era some are worth revisiting. The anonymously published The Indian Cookbook (1880) contains a decent Quorema (Korma). Nisha Katona describes the korma as a ‘gateway curry’ but it was originally a decadent Mughlai dish served for special occasions like weddings. Homemade kormas are a thing of beauty, and bear little resemblance to the sickly, sweet versions available in curry houses or to the ready-made supermarket sauces.
Saffron is equally at home in sugary treats such as fudge or biscuits. One of the earliest gingerbread recipes curiously contains saffron along with cinnamon and pepper, but no ginger whatsoever. Follow Joyce Goldstein’s example by adding saffron to a rice pudding or perhaps poach pears in a saffron syrup like Ghillie Basan.
As well as being a culinary ingredient saffron was perceived to have various health benefits. These included strengthening the heart, curing indigestion and alleviating melancholy. Saffron coloured food is a joy to behold so perhaps there is some truth in the last claim. However, like many ‘drugs’ eating too much was supposed to be dangerous. A man in seventeenth century Spain reputedly died from laughing after eating too much saffron. Heavy handed dosing of saffron is more likely to offend the tastebuds than cause illness. Some find the taste of saffron bitter and metallic, much in the same way as people complain that the flavour of fresh coriander is soapy. Fortunately, you need relatively little saffron to flavour and colour a dish but if you are concerned err on the side of caution. That said, have courage – even a generous pinch is unlikely to ruin a dish. Norman Douglas once said that a man who is stingy with saffron is capable of seducing his own grandmother, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?