You don’t usually expect to find the replenishments for your spice rack under lock and key, but at my local supermarket in California in the 1980s, the saffron was that closely guarded. Shoppers looked on in curiosity as the mad Englishwoman patiently waited to procure her stash of a tiny packet of scarlet threads costing hundreds of dollars an ounce, desperately needed to gild and perfume a risotto Milanese to accompany an osso buco.
Italian chefs relate to this need and tend to get their own “mountain gold” from the Abruzzo or Sardinia, while the Spanish swear by La Mancha, where the saffron has its own DOP. Morocco, Greece, India and other countries whose cuisines embrace saffron, including our own, also grow minute amounts, but 80 per cent of the world’s supply comes from Iran. However, high prices have spawned a trade in fakes that can leave holiday shoppers finding their souk bargains might colour their food but are totally devoid of that subtle flavour which has such an affinity with fish, custard-based dishes and starchy delights from bread to rice to pasta.
Judging by the way sales have jumped in M&S, I’m not the only cook prepared to fork out £10 for a single gram of the real thing, the most expensive spice in the world. Increasing
numbers of cooks influenced by their Mediterranean travels are finding a pinch of the deep-red filaments essential to lift a risotto, bring a paella to life and fragrance many of the rich golden traditional breads and cakes that underpin Britain’s baking heritage.
“Spanish food in particular has been a huge trend and customers are demanding authentic ingredients to make their own,” says M&S product development manager Chris Seaby, who has seen the chain’s saffron sales more than double in the past year alone.
Not that saffron is easy to use – overdo it and you’ll have a dish that’s unpleasantly soapy; mix it with other spices and you risk losing its subtle fragrance altogether. But there are few cooks around the Mediterranean and on the subcontinent who do not find saffron indispensable, as the British did in Tudor times (the Persians, who celebrated it in cave art 50,000 years ago, were cooking with saffron many centuries earlier, while Cleopatra added the reputed aphrodisiac to her bath to promote more pleasurable love-making). Excitingly, the purple Crocus sativus, a major domestic crop in medieval times when its stigma were more highly prized than gold, is being grown at home again after a gap of more than 200 years, proving it’s not the exclusive province of warm-weather farmers. Many growers started as hobbyists, such as botanist Sally Francis, of Norfolk Saffron, whose mother bought her 20 plants as a birthday present in 1997.
“I produced enough for perhaps three meals of saffron-flavoured rice but the plants grew fourfold, and I discovered there was a whole history of growing saffron in this area,” says Francis, who has found references dating back to 1461: “We were even exporting saffron to Holland from here from 1590 to the 1610s.”
The trade died out as peace with Spain brought a rush of imported saffron, vanilla took over as the spice du jour, and the high price of cereals following the Napoleonic wars saw the saffron fields turned over to producing grain.
For her part, by 2008 Francis had seen her 20 plants multiply fourfold every year to the point where she was picking more than she could use herself. After her little stash of surplus sold out at a local fair, she decided to turn her agricultural nous to farming the precious spice, and is now planting tens of thousands of crocus every year. “I always sell out, even though my saffron costs more than imported because it is incredibly labour-intensive. It takes up to 200 flowers, all of which have to be picked by hand, to produce a single gram of dried saffron.”
However, she says, the fact that her saffron is the highest of four official grades means it is much stronger than much of what is sold in the supermarkets for a third or less of the price, and consequently less is needed for a recipe. “Sometimes it can be as little as one-fifth of what is suggested – less than a pinch. It is particularly good in breads, and it makes ice cream to die for,” she says.
Norfolk Saffron’s golden bread and butter pudding, which indeed requires only 20 threads to produce a gloriously aromatic dessert for four, certainly shows this affinity, and Rosie Clark, of Bread Angels, teaches a baking class using the saffron at her school in Norfolk. Rhiannon Taylor credits her golden Cornish saffron buns with bringing repeat business to her Little Trewern B&B in the Black Mountains: “The saffron gives guests the feeling they’re starting the day with a bit of decadence.”
Shane Hughes, head chef at the Tudor Room at Great Fosters Hotel in Surrey, extravagantly incorporates saffron into his pasta dough: “It produces a rich, golden colour you can’t get from egg yolks alone.” But he believes the best hit is produced by using it as a finishing spice: “Instead of infusing it, I’ll just suspend the whole grains in a brandade espuma with which I top a dish of butter-poached cod. The effect on diners as the filaments melt into the foam under their noses is immediate and very heady.” Although Hughes got the idea from seeing Alain Roux dissolve filaments in a seafood bisque, home cooks will get better results from infusing saffron in stock to be added to rice, or pounding the filaments before incorporating them into baked goods or custards.
Although it is crazily expensive, the beauty of saffron is that so very little is needed: “It’s a case of less is more,” says the London-based Spanish chef Jose Pizarro, who points out that you can flavour 10 family-sized paellas with a single quarter-gram plastic box of Spanish saffron: “It’s over-generous use reminds me of old-fashioned hospitals and iodine dressings!”
His recipe for ice cream contains only 12 threads of saffron, and Monika Linton, founder and owner of Brindisa, which confusingly sells Iranian as well as La Mancha saffron, says the pungency of the finest quality saffron is what makes it go further: “In La Mancha, they toast it as it dries, and although the Iranian will never be as aromatic, toasting it for a few seconds in a dry frying-pan before infusing will bring out the best it has to offer.”
The veteran chef and saffron-lover Alastair Little warns how important it is to buy from a reputable supplier: “I’ve been caught out in corner shops myself, and I know what to look for!” As M&S has brought Spanish saffron to the masses, and other supermarkets have done the same for Iranian, and Norfolk Saffron for home-grown, there’s no reason to risk dubious holiday spice-market bargains.
Adulteration may no longer be punishable by execution, as in the Middle Ages, but you don’t want to be forking out even a fiver for anything less potent than the real thing. One test is that real saffron will turn water yellow but retain its scarlet hue and float after a 10-minute soak, while impostors will shed their artificial hues and sink.
Steenberg’s is offering the first fair trade saffron from Iran in the UK – less aromatic than La Mancha, but cheaper at £4 for 0.5g: steenbergs.co.uk
HOW CHEFS ARE USING IT
Karam Sethi of Trishna poaches pears in saffron, makes a saffron and pistachio kulfi and uses the spice to infuse the rice for his biryanis.
Jose Pizarro makes saffron ice cream to serve with pears poached in Rioja at his London tapas bars.
Ronnie Bonnetti serves a roast chicken, almond and saffron mayo salad at Cecconi.
Alastair Little infuses the garlicky Provençal fish stew bourride with saffron at his deli, Tavola.
Rosie Clark will next be teaching a class on baking with Norfolk saffron on 1 June. breadangels.com