For several centuries, saffron was considered so precious that, rather than import the red-gold threads, we cultivated our own crop. For 300 years, around Cambridge and Essex, we grew Crocus sativus linnaeus, the purple-flowering autumn crocus from which the stigmas are extracted.
Saffron, sold as dried filaments or as powder, lends colour, aroma and flavour to many dishes, especially of eastern origin. Indian desserts such as julabi, Iranian pilau rice, Italian risotto, Spanish paella and French bouillabaisse owe their aromatic character to a judicious pinch of saffron.
But, with two exceptions, one very ancient and one very modern, its use in Britain has been falling away. According to John Humphries, author of an authoritative account of the spice (The Essential Saffron Companion, Grub Street pounds 14.99) only a few home cooks these days have any idea what to do with it. And if you do invest in some at around pounds 3 a gram, there's no clue on the packet as to how you might use it.
The latest practitioners are a pioneering group of New Wave London chefs. Alastair Little, Simon Hopkinson and Rowley Leigh are chief among the revivalists, joined most recently by Giorgio Locatelli who has named his Italian restaurant in Belgravia after the spice, Zafferano.
Between them they have both adopted some traditional dishes and invented others, such as saffron mash, to brilliant saffron sauces for fish and even saffron ice-cream.
The old school of saffron users are the bakers of Cornwall. They have kept alive an unbroken 3,000-year-old link with the spice. And almost every family in Cornwall has its special recipe for saffron bread, buns and cakes. "They are the largest consumers of saffron in Britain," says John Humphries. "They seem to have been first in this country to adopt the use of the spice." He understands that Phoenician traders, adventuring far from the Mediterranean around 1,000BC, came to buy Cornish tin, and persuaded the Cornish to accept saffron as payment.
In the old days, Humphries points out, saffron was rated as highly as a medicine as food colouring or flavouring. Indeed, until the 18th century it was considered a cure for almost every ill. This notion persists in small pockets, says Humphries. He remembers, as a child, that chemists stocked saffron. "People thought it relieved measles," he says. Modern research, he believes, suggests that some of the old apothecaries may not have been so far off the mark. "It's thought that small dosages provide protection against, and cure of, many illnesses, including cancers."
Humphries can see how it got its reputation for being beneficial. "Even a sniff of a box of saffron makes you feel good. A saffron bun, when you cut it open, has a rich appetising smell. You really can't wait to eat it. The same is true of saffron fish stews and rice dishes. I am sure it is a very, powerful stimulant to appetite."
John Humphries is an unusual author of such a book. Not only had he no writing experience, he knew nothing about the subject until five years ago. Though trained as a graphic designer he was drawn to the world of cooking. He became friends with several chefs and then travelled in Spain buying specialised foods. "It was Rowley Leigh who asked if I could get him some saffron."
A wonderful new life opened up as he travelled the plains of La Mancha, south of Madrid, which produces some of the world's best saffron. He had never seen any food production so labour-intensive.
The blooms are picked early in the day before they can open. Then they are taken to homes where all the family joins in the intricate, delicate work of stripping out the three stigmas in each flower. It takes some 5,200 blooms to provide enough to make a single ounce. The golden-red threads are dried in baskets over a wood-stove (patient work, usually entrusted to the grandmother) then sold on to dealers.
Over the years, trade in saffron has been a risky business, he says. Given its high price, saffron is open to adulteration and fraud. In Middle Eastern markets they will try to pass off dried safflower or marigold blooms as saffron (years ago I was diddled in Jerusalem). To the patently gullible, they will even offer turmeric as saffron powder.
But controls today are very strict, especially in Britain, where the food laws require encyclopaedic documentation of imported products. "But I did come across some saffron tea on sale at Christmas which actually contained safflower. `Oh no it's not,' I told them. `Oh yes it is,' they said. I rang the buyer and eventually persuaded her she had been duped."
As a food colourant, saffron was important to Tudor chefs who used it to give a golden hue to egg-yolk glazes on pastry, and to give a rich colour to butter and cream.
Yellow remains a desirable colour in food but in today's food and drink, we settle for cheap annatto dye, or turmeric colouring or even questionable azodyes such as tartrazine.
Spain is the main exporter of saffron to the UK (selling us half-a-million pounds worth every year). Most of it comes from Safinter in Barcelona, which is more of a laboratory than a factory. The product meets demanding Swiss standards of analysis. Spanish saffron has a little more aroma than Iranian (which is cheaper but has more colour) or the Greek, Krokos kozanis.
The flavour and perfume of saffron is hard to pin down. Humphries describes it as a catalyst in cooking, anonymous in its own right, but with the power to invest other flavours with new life. That's true. But it also has its own smoky, dry aroma, evoking ancient stone vaults.
Of course, it's essential, having paid out generously for it, to maximise its potential to the full. Cornish bakers, Humphries notes, soak the threads for all of 24 hours to extract the most colour and flavour, but he prefers to use the threads or filaments to powder.
First of all, dry the saffron. Humphries advises, heat a pan, take it off the heat and sprinkle in the appropriate number of threads, 20 or 30 might be average. They lose residual moisture very quickly so, after 10 seconds remove and crush to a powder with the back of a spoon. Pour on a few tablespoons of boiling water or hot stock. Leave to infuse for 10 minutes to half an hour to extract the maximum colour, before adding it to your dish.
Since Humphries began his love affair with saffron he has experimented in many ways; using it as a dye for tablecloths, colouring drinks, using it to produce yellow ice-cubes, making sure each cube contains a single saffron strand.
Saffron in drinks is a subject in itself and he notes that it provides the colour in Chartreuse, and something else in Noilly Prat, the French dry vermouth which contains some 40 dried herbs. Yellow saffron highlights a glass of brown Fernet Branca, the unpleasant-tasting hangover cure.
These, and many other insights to this extraordinary spice, are in John Humphries' book, from which the following recipes are taken.
Humphries confesses to cheating when preparing Holland-aise by making it in the blender having discovered an American recipe many years ago which promised: "this Hollandaise recipe never fails" - true to its word, he says, it never has.
30 saffron filaments infused in lemon juice or 12 sachet powdered saffron
15-25ml/1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 egg yolks
14 tablespoon salt
fresh black pepper
225g/8oz unsalted butter
All ingredients should be at room temperature.
First of all, mix the saffron filaments and lemon juice and leave for 30 minutes before commencing on the sauce. Next, fill the blender with hot water. Leave it to warm the jar for a few minutes. Empty the water into a saucepan on a low heat. Stand the blender jar in the saucepan and put the egg yolks, lemon juice/saffron infusion, a little salt and a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper in the jar. After five minutes, gently combine this mixture then return the blender jar to the saucepan to keep warm. Meanwhile, slowly heat the butter to the hot bubbly stage and stir. Return the blender jar to the motor base, turn to a slow beat and start to add the hot butter, slowly at first and then in a steady stream.
The Hollandaise will form in front of your eyes: taste to check seasoning. Be watchful, you may not need all the butter. If the sauce is too thick, thin by adding a little hot water or some more lemon juice.
For the double boiler method of making Hollandaise: steep the powdered saffron in lemon juice and/or vinegar for 20 minutes, then proceed in the normal way. Beware: saffron filaments will entwine themselves in your whisk, so add whole filaments at the end by gently stirring in with a spoon. Whole filaments can be used in either of these recipes to add hot spots of colour and texture to your sauce.
RED-PEPPER AND SAFFRON SAUCE
This is John Humphries' fav-ourite sauce for monkfish tails, roasted with garlic and rosemary. With the addition of paprika it is good with rabbit or lamb. If the sauce is kept thick, it can make a delicious accompanying dip for vegetables.
60 saffron filaments or 1 sachet of powdered saffron, infused in 15ml/1 tablespoon of lemon juice
4 large red peppers
45ml/3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
225g/8oz ripe, vine tomatoes, chopped and deseeded
30ml/2 tablespoons fresh thyme
12 lemon, juiced
dash of sherry vinegar
salt and pepper
Prepare the saffron infusion. Brush the peppers with a film of olive oil, then roast, grill or barbecue them until the skin is charred, blackened and blistered on all sides. Remove the peppers from the heat and place in a heavyweight plastic bag, tie the bag with a knot and leave the peppers to steam for 15 minutes. This will make peeling them much easier. Heat the oil in a heavy pan and gently sweat the onion, then add the garlic and the tomatoes; leave to cook for 20 minutes.
Peel the peppers over a bowl to retain all the juice and transfer any pepper juice in the bag to the bowl. Deseed the liquid by straining it through a sieve and reserve. Chop the pepper flesh and add to the onion mixture, cook together for two minutes.
Then add half the saffron infusion, the pepper juice, the thyme, the lemon juice and the vinegar. Stir and simmer for 10 minutes, taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. Puree the mixture in a blender or vegetable mill, then return it to the pan to warm to serving temperature. Stir in the remaining saffron infusion and serve.
ST AUSTELL SAFFRON CAKE
20ml/4 teaspoons dried yeast
1kg/2lb strong flour
600ml/1 pint warm milk
450g/16oz mixed peel
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
100 saffron filaments or 2 sachets of powdered saffron, infused in hot milk overnight
Make a ferment, by combin- ing the yeast, one cup of the weighed flour, one cup of warm milk and one teaspoon of the sugar, whisk together then leave it to develop for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, rub the lard into the remaining flour, add the salt, the remaining sugar and the fruit. When ready, add the yeast mixture, the rest of the warm milk and the saffron infusion. Knead well and leave to rise for around one hour. Knead again, then place the dough into greased baking tins and allow to prove for 30 minutes
Preheat oven to 190C/375F/ Gas 5 and bake for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 110C/ 225F/Gas 12 for a further 15 minutes. Allow to rest for one hour before slicing.
CORNISH SAFFRON BUNS
Prepare the dough in exactly the same way as for the St Austell cake recipe given above. Then split the dough by the hand- ful, into 4oz or 6oz pieces, mould them into bun shapes and then place them on a flat baking sheet. Allow the dough to prove for 20 to 30 minutes before baking in a preheated oven 190C/375F/Gas 5 for about 12 to 15 minutes.
Readers of the Independent on Sunday can obtain a copy of John Humphries' The Es-sential Saffron Companion, published for pounds 14.99 by Grub Street, for the special price of pounds 12.99 (including postage and packing). Send cheques or postal orders, payable to Grub Street, to: Independent on Sunday Offer, Grub Street Direct, Bailey Distribution, Units 1A/1B Learoyd Road, New Romney, Kent TN28 8XU. For credit card sales call 01797 369966.
We're also offering readers the chance to buy top quality La Mancha saffron from the 1996 harvest, Safinter brand. A 25g box/tin costs pounds 47 (including postage and packing). A 4g box of saffron costs pounds 9.40 (including postage and packing). Send cheques or postal orders made payable to Saffron Direct to: Saffron Direct, Suite 23, 46-48 Warwick Way, London SWIV IRYReuse content