Food & Drink: The spice with the Midas touch: Loved by the Romans and treasured by the Tudors, saffron is fashionable once again. Michael Bateman welcomes a taste for gold

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SAFF' MASH is one of the smart new dishes in Sloaneravia. Next to stuffing a baked potato with caviare (which is what they do at Les Saveurs in Mayfair) there can be few more impressive ways of adding value to the humble spud than making it into a puree, using costly estate-bottled olive oil and the world's most precious spice, saffron.

Saffron, though no longer worth its weight in gold, is a hefty item on a restaurant's weekly bill. Chefs such as Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place buy saff' for their mash by the 30g boxful, which can cost up to pounds 90.

He got the idea for saff' mash from his pal Simon Hopkinson, chef-patron at Bibendum, who thought it up on holiday in the South of France. The idea came to him as he idly mopped up a bowl of saffron-scented bouillabaisse with some saffron-stained potatoes that had been cooked in the soup liquor. The accompanying rouille, a mayonnaise of oil and garlic, completed his inspiration.

Saffron is enjoying an extraordinary revival. There is hardly a serious cook left in the country who hasn't added it to his or her repertoire. Not only is it used to colour and flavour soups, seafood dishes and sauces, it is also surfacing in sweet dishes. It gives a primrose blush and tang to milk puddings. Adam Robinson at The Brackenbury restaurant in Hammersmith, west London, introduced a delicious saffron ice-

cream which other chefs are copying.

Saffron hasn't been so fashionable since Tudor times, when it was used to enrich the colour of butter, cream and sauces. It was often mixed with egg yolk to make a glaze for pastry. There is a reference to glazed pies in The Winter's Tale: 'I must have saffron to colour warden pies' (wardens being large, hard pears).

Saffron is arguably the world's most charismatic spice, and since its first mention in Egyptian scrolls of 7000 BC it has been credited with almost magical properties. It has always been thought to promote well-being. The Romans used it as an aphrodisiac, mixing it with wine, and also the next morning (according to Pliny) as a hangover cure.

Tudor herbalists categorised it as a tranquilliser and antidepressant, and there is a 15th- century Latin tag to describe someone in a merry mood: dormirit in sacco croci - he has slept in a sack of saffron. Sir Francis Bacon wrote that it was due to the use of saffron that the British were so 'sprightly'. But you could have too much of a good thing, since the herbalist Nicholas Culpeper warns of excessive doses, amounting to saffron abuse: 'Some have fallen into an immoderate convulsive laughter which ended in death.'

Saffron wasn't just used in cooking. It was also an important dye, employed in the past to colour Buddhist priests' robes; the veils of Roman brides were dyed with saffron; and the East Anglian wool industry adopted it at about the same time as English cooks.

Saffron disappeared from the scene at the end of the 17th century - around the time, notes the food historian C Anne Wilson, that vanilla was introduced to Britain, starting a new fashion. But the use of saffron lingers in Devon and Cornwall, where saffron buns and saffron bread are feast-day treats. Today it is neither its ability to promote good humour nor its capacity to colour food that appeals to cooks. They are more interested in its heady, smoky perfume and its minerally flavour, slightly reminiscent of iodine.

Saffron comes from the orange-red stigma of the autumn crocus. You can buy it either as dry strands or as a fine powder. Its high cost is due to its being so labour-intensive to harvest.

Saffron seems to flourish in extremes of climate in Kashmir, Iran, parts of Turkey - and on the plain in Spain, where summer temperatures reach 40 degrees and drop to 20 degrees below zero in winter. It is generally thought that the best, and certainly the most consistent, saffron comes from Spain, which produces 70 per cent of the world's crop.

Tightly wrapped up against the November winds, I joined a Spanish family working their saffron gardens. Growing saffron is a sideline for farming families who are sufficiently well off to rent strips of fresh land in four-year cycles and invest in the plentiful manure that saffron needs to help it flourish.

The harvest is short and sharp, the dull brown earth suddenly assuming a purple bloom. It takes only days to pick the flower heads, for each plant produces no more than five blooms over three days. Picking begins at first light and must be done by mid-morning before the flower opens, exposing its precious contents to the elements.

These blooms must be picked over by hand, the petals rolled back to expose the scarlet-golden stems inside; the furry, pollen-covered anthers must be parted to reveal three thin filaments, which are drawn out. For a kilo of dried saffron a family must pick nearly a million blooms, separating over two million stigmas.

Some are picked over at the side of the road, leaving a livid Tory-blue pile of petals, a careless nudge of colour on the landscape which might have been dabbed there by Cezanne or Van Gogh. Most often they are picked over in the kitchen at home by the whole family, young and old. In the centre of a table piled with blooms stands a white plate which gradually fills till it glows red-gold like the setting sun. Usually the grandmother, the most trustworthy member of the family, will be charged with drying the filaments, holding them in a sieve over the steady heat of a wood stove.

Saffron was grown in England from the mid- 14th century to the early-18th, in south Cambridgeshire and north Essex. Trade centred on Chepyng Warden - which later adopted the name of Saffron Walden, under Royal Charter.

There are various tips for getting the best out of saffron. To flavour and colour a dish (such as fish soup) for 4-6 people, allow 8-10 strands or threads. If you dry-fry the strands for a few moments in a pan, this will make them easier to dissolve. With a pestle or the back of a spoon, crush them in a mortar or cup. Pour on a spoonful or two of hot cooking liquid, and stand for 20 minutes. This produces a reddish-orange colour and a pungent aroma.

Add this to the cooking liquid for your fish soup (or bouillabaisse) or paella (or arroz de la marinera). If you are using it to colour a mayonnaise or aioli (garlic-flavoured mayonnaise) use a dessertspoon of hot liquid, and let it cool before incorporating it. In India, cooks sprinkle a few threads of saffron on yoghurt so that it bleeds into the creamy surface.

SAFFRON PARSNIP SOUP

Saffron goes well with root vegetables, says importer John Humphries, who makes this colourful soup (from his book Simply Saffron, to be published in October by Grub Street at pounds 5.99).

Serves 6-8

20 saffron filaments, powdered and infused

in a tablespoon of hot stock

1 large onion chopped

white part of leek chopped

1/2 carrot chopped

2lb/1kg parsnips

3 pints/1 1/2 litres vegetable or chicken stock

3 garlic cloves crushed

1 bay leaf

unsalted butter

olive oil

creme fraiche

salt and pepper

Sweat together the onion, leek, carrot and garlic in olive oil for 10 minutes. Scrub, top, tail and slice the parsnips. Place them in a saucepan with water to cover, boil for two minutes and simmer. Add the stock and 1/2 the saffron infusion to the onion, add bay leaf and simmer.

When the parsnips are just soft, add them and their cooking water to the stock and onion. Mix together and simmer for a further 5-10 minutes. Remove bay leaf. Liquidise the mixture and return to pan on a low heat. Fold in 2 dessertspoons of creme fraiche and a knob of butter. Check seasoning; add remaining saffron infusion. Cook 2 more minutes, stirring well.

Garnish with a puddle of really good extra virgin olive oil, chopped broad-leaf parsley and finely diced red pepper. Serve in warm bowls with crusty bread.

SAFFRON MONKFISH AND SALMON

This recipe from Switzerland's most distinguished chef, Fredy Girardet, brilliantly uses saffron to harmonise both colour and flavour. Broad beans with skins removed are deliciously sweet, but you can leave them unskinned.

Serves 4

10oz/300g boned monkfish

5oz/150g boned salmon

3 cloves of garlic

4 basil leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil

pinch of saffron powder, or 12 threads

3 tablespoons vegetable stock

1/4 pint/150ml double cream

2 tablespoons petis pois, cooked

2 tablespoons broad beans, cooked and skinned

lemon juice

salt and pepper

Cut the monkfish so that each person will have three pieces measuring about 1 1/2 in square. Peel and chop the garlic very finely. Using scissors, cut the basil leaves into very fine strips.

Put 1 tablespoon of the olive oil into a small saucepan, add the chopped garlic and 8 threads or a pinch of saffron powder and sweat for 3 minutes over a medium heat. Add the vegetable stock, the double cream and a few threads of saffron. Continue cooking at a bare simmer for 2 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add a little lemon juice. Add the petits pois and beans and set the pan aside.

Put half a tablespoon of olive oil into a non- stick frying pan and let it get very hot. Season the monkfish with salt, pepper and saffron powder and saute it briskly in this pan for 3 minutes. Set it aside.

Make another dry, non-stick frying pan very hot. Season the diced salmon in the same way as the monkfish, with salt, pepper and saffron powder. Saute for 30 seconds, stirring all the time with a spatula. Set it aside.

Put three pieces of monkfish each in the centre of four heated plates. Cover them with sauce and the remaining saffron, crumbled. Garnish with salmon cubes and sprinkle the strips of basil over all.

SAFF' MASH

This is Simon Hopkinson's celebrated saff' mash. It is included in his new book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories (Ebury Press pounds 17.99). If you are going to serve these potatoes with fish, then it is nice to cook them in fish stock. If you are not, then don't bother.

Serves 4

2lb/1kg floury potatoes, peeled

and cut into chunks

salt

a generous teaspoon of saffron threads

1 large garlic clove,

peeled and finely chopped

7fl oz/200ml creamy milk

7fl oz/200ml virgin olive oil

Tabasco sauce, to taste

Boil the potatoes in fish stock or water with some salt. Heat together the saffron, garlic and milk, cover and infuse while the potatoes are boiling. Add the olive oil to the milk infusion and gently reheat.

Drain and mash the potatoes. Place the potatoes in the bowl of an electric mixer, switch on and add the saffron mixture in a steady stream. Add Tabasco to taste and adjust the seasoning. Allow the puree to sit in a warm place for about 30 minutes so that the saffron flavour is fully developed.

SAFFRON ICE-CREAM

This is the recipe created by Adam Robinson of The Brackenbury Restaurant in Hammersmith, west London.

Makes about 2 pints

12 saffron threads

1 pint/600ml milk

1/3 pint/200ml double cream

5oz/140g sugar

5 egg yolks

Bring the milk and cream to the boil, add the saffron, remove from the heat and leave to infuse overnight.

Beat the egg yolk and sugar in a bowl till smooth and white. Pour in a little of the saffron mixture and beat till smooth.

Put it in a saucepan with the rest of the saffron mixture, and cook at 87C for 3 minutes. If you don't have a thermometer, use a double boiler (one pan inside a pan of boiling water) to prevent the egg mixture scrambling, and cook till the mixture coats a spoon).

Pass the mixture through a fine sieve, and cool. Churn in an ice-cream machine, or freeze in a tray in the deep-freeze compartment, removing the mixture at one-hour intervals to beat it, until it has set. -

(Photograph omitted)

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