Food & Drink: Those fragrant little biscuits started a lifetime's love affair

THERE, it's out: I am a saffron freak. I have been one since early childhood, when, on my first visit to my mother's native Italy, I was given little saffron biscuits to nibble with my fresh lemonade. I cannot tell you what kind of biscuits they were. I know they were hard of surface, powdery soft within and wonderfully fragrant. I also know, having been in search of my own lost madeleine for a lifetime, that those biscuits had genuine saffron in them; and that similar biscuits today are made with artificial flavourings.

I am certain of this because, when my mother wanted to please me, or when I was ill (often enough), she would order up 'yellow' rice, the commonest of all rices in the north of Italy and in Spain. The rice, sticky and hot; the butter, rich and melting; the saffron with its own sweet, high flavour: these are - when I want to look on the good side of things - the essence of my childhood; as are, when I want to remember the worst: cod-liver oil, rhubarb and soda, and fresh, still-warm ox blood (then a putative cure for tuberculosis).

Considering the fact that saffron is now the most expensive flavouring in the world, (about pounds 1 per gram for saffron of any quality), the fact that it is widely used in cooking (from Indonesia to the Middle East, in North Africa and in Spain and Italy) is nothing less than astonishing.

Historically, saffron was known to the Greeks, long cultivated by the Persians and in Kashmir, a significant item in Chinese herbal medicine, and apparently brought to Britain during the Crusades. It was especially cultivated near Hinton, Cambridgeshire, and in Saffron Walden, Essex.

For its true origins and history I await the promised book of Robert Johnson, who teaches Spanish and Latin American literature in New South Wales, Australia. The extract from his work, published in Petits Propos Culinaires 41 (Prospect Books, 45 Lamont Road, London SW10 0HU), promises a rich harvest.

Tradition has it that saffron is of Arab origin, because the word comes from the Arabic for yellow, za'faran. But as saffron is derived from a crocus (and the people who grow, harvest and dry it are called 'crokers'), it may well be, as some argue, that its true original home was the town of Cocyrus in south-east Asia Minor.

For much of ancient history, saffron seems to have been used primarily as a dye and a perfume, the colour being associated with nobility, the smell (potent) deodorising (or at least altering the smell of) orgies. It has also been used as a substitute for gold in illumination and to mark the spot on a Hindu pandit. Frankly, I think it is like many rare things: used primarily by the rich as a delicious prop to luxury. As it is the rich who make and enforce laws, there have always been stringent (and wise) laws against adulterating saffron. In the 16th century, three men were buried alive for such an offence.

The principal sources of saffron today are Spain, France, Sicily, Iran and Kashmir, though there are pockets growing elsewhere. You can tell good saffron by its colour, which is as deep and yellow-red as you can get outside of a Turner sunset. Any variation, towards light or dark, is to be avoided: this is either inferior saffron or saffron past its prime. It will, by the way, last a long time: traditionally in slightly damp leather bags, or in glass jars kept firmly away from light and heat.

Good cooks do not use ground, dried saffron. They use the filaments, which look like short strings but are actually the stigmas of the flower. Saffron is expensive because growing and harvesting the flowers is so labour-intensive and subject to such risks. The flowers have to be gathered in October, early in the morning, while they are opening. Each flower has three pistils and an experienced 'peeler' can do about 10,000 flowers in a day, producing between two and three ounces of the precious spice.

There are a few simple rules for the use of saffron, foremost among which is that it needs to be cooked for some five minutes in a warm liquid (milk is very effective) before it releases its full flavour. A second rule is that you do not need to use very much. Four to six threads of saffron will do a risotto milanese for four. A third is that heat and saffron go together, so do not try using it cold, unless all you want is the colour (and if that is all you want, cheat, like so many modern Persian or Indian dishes do, by using turmeric).

It is, of course, rice with which we mainly associate saffron, but that is far from its only use. It is, for instance, terrific with fish, especially the more highly flavoured fish. It is an essential ingredient of bouillabaisse and its cousin fish soups up and down the Mediterranean. And a baked mackerel that has been stuffed with saffron rice is a true delicacy.

As anyone who has eaten extensively in North Africa or the Near East will tell you, saffron also goes very well with lamb, and I myself am particularly partial to eggs baked en cocotte with saffron. Take a ramekin dish, fill the bottom with warm, but not browned, butter, in which you have allowed the saffron to open up, drop in the egg and put it in the oven.

Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice