Mellow yellow

Saffron is the spice of life. Infuse and enthuse; `Saffron is dowry material, I reckon Spanish grannies used to store it in the bottom drawer for years'

It must be refreshing after six years of importing saffron - when even the most hardy might feel jaded at the prospect of yet another plate of risotto - to experience the finest saffron you have ever tasted.

This happened to John Humphries, author of The Essential Saffron Companion (Grub Street, pounds 14.99), when he opened up a delivery of saffron from the 1996 harvest packed by Safinter. He was so excited that he rushed off to infuse some gin for making martinis, and dyed the likes of bubbly Cava a deep yellow.

Apart from the benefits of the 1996's auspicious weather conditions in La Mancha in Spain - from where he believes the finest saffron is produced - Humphries approves of the use in Spanish saffron of the pale white styles (filaments) that producers there usually include. These tend to be removed by the Greeks, Iranians and Kashmiris. "They donate an extra base and treble," says Humphries.

White styles don't add anything in the way of colour, but they provide an additional layer of complexity to the overall aroma.There is a chart in Humphries's book detailing the chemical requirements for grading saffron that illustrates how complex a spice it is: measures for its bitterness, its safranal, colouring strength and physical properties like solubility and nitrogen content.

As to its flavour, without resorting to florid winespeak, I don't think words can ever fully account for an aroma that is so unique. And drawing out that essential honeyed bitterness is where the art of it lies.

If you add whole saffron filaments to a risotto, for instance, you will be disappointed 20 minutes later to find it has only turned the colour of faded sunlight with little added in the way of flavour.

Saffron comes to life as an infusion. Smell the dried filaments and they will be sweet and musty; grind them in a pestle and mortar and steep with a little boiling water and a complex array of essential oils will be released as the water turns deeper and more intensely yellow. Alternatively, you can infuse the whole filaments for at least 20 minutes, and up to 24 hours.

My preferences for filaments over powder is not so much a fear of adulteration, more that, like any spice, saffron can only benefit from being freshly ground. The attraction of the sachets of powder is the instant hit of colour, and those cooks I know who prefer not to leave anything to chance will add both filaments and powder.

Quantifying the strands is the tricky bit. A pinch is about as accurate as a bunch or a handful. Quarter-teaspoons don't help much, either. At the risk of being pedantic, the only accurate method of accounting is to state the number of filaments. This is easier than it sounds.

Timing, too, is crucial. Like so many delicate aromatics, the full complexity is lost with lengthy cooking. There again, if you want colour it needs to be added towards the beginning. So you have to compromise, adding some at the beginning and some at the end.

I get patriotic stirrings on the subject of saffron - that it was once such a huge industry in this country. Caroline Riden in North Wales is as close as we have to a commercial grower of saffron in Britain today.

The 1970s, she says, was a period of frustration for the saffron lover, the little that was available was poor and expensive: "Saffron is dowry material, I reckon Spanish grannies used to store it in the bottom drawer for years, and what we were getting over here was a dusty relic."

The easy answer is to grow it yourself. Riden is a one-woman band - it wouldn't be viable to employ a picker. Her quest is not to put the commercial growing of saffron back on the map, but to encourage more people to cultivate their own small patches.

What she does harvest she finds markedly different to imported saffron. She puts this down to "the marriage of our climate and the way I dry it" - a process that renders more mellow filaments "a blend of honey, smoke and sea". Unfortunately, the weather that proved so advantageous in Spain was matched by equally disastrous weather here. So a comparison of Spanish and English spice is going to have to wait.

Saffron Lemon Cake, makes one 9" cake

I love the combination of saffron and lemon, not least because their colours are suggestive of each other. The cake is very light and fluffy, with a lemon sugar glaze and a buttercream filling, nicest eaten the day it's made. It will also double up as a dessert.

Filling:

2 large eggs

75g/3oz caster sugar

zest and juice of 1 lemon

110g/4oz unsalted butter

Cake:

275g/10oz unsalted butter, softened and diced

200g/7oz caster sugar

3 large eggs

275g/10oz self-raising flour, sifted

1 heaped teaspoon baking powder, sifted

juice of 1 lemon

30 saffron filaments, ground and infused with 1tbsp boiling water for 10 minutes.

Glaze:

juice of 1 lemon

3 tablespoons caster sugar

Ffor the filling: whisk the eggs, sugar, lemon zest and juice together in the top half of a double boiler, and cook over simmering water in the lower half, stirring constantly until it is like a thick custard. This will take about 5 minutes: strain it into a bowl, cover and chill until the lemon cream is cold and has firmed up.

While the lemon cream is chilling, cook the cake. Preheat the oven to 160C (fan oven)/170 (electric oven)/325F /Gas 3 and butter a 23cm/9" cake tin. Place all the ingredients for the cake in the bowl of a food processor and combine at high speed for as short a time as possible. Do not worry if the butter is still slightly lumpy. Spoon into the buttered tin and bake for 40 minutes until risen and lightly golden on the surface, and a skewer comes out clean from the centre of the cake. Blend the lemon juice and sugar together and spoon over the top. Remove the collar and cool.

Whisk the butter for the filling in a food processor until creamy and white, then add the lemon cream. If the mixture separates add a tablespoon of boiling water to bring it back together. Slit the cake and spread the lemon cream in the centre, and sandwich the halves together.

If you are interested in growing your own saffron, Caroline Riden sells instructions, the corms are complementary: send a stamped addressed envelope to Caerestyn Farm, Rhyddyn Hill, Caergwrle, Nr. Wrexham LL12 9EF. Safinter saffron is available from Sainsbury's Special Selection.

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