For most people Saffron is a captivating and expensive spice which conjures up images of mysterious distant lands but for hundreds of years to the Cornish it has been a more homely than exotic ingredient.
It is a story of much conjecture and hot debate as to when saffron first arrived in Cornwall. There are stories of Phoenician and Roman traders from more than 2000 years ago but the more likely answer is a little later than that. In the 14th century Cornwall had a healthy trade in tin with its Spanish neighbours, who in turn had trade routes across the globe, one theory is that saffron first arrived through them.
And this fantastic aromatic spice made its way into our Cornish cooking. Saffron buns and saffron cake are an integral part of any cakey tea (well they always have been in my house anyway!) just as much as clotted cream. And there is even evidence that saffron was cultivated in a few select places in Cornwall for a while – there are records of saffron fields in Launcells near Bude, Fowey, Penryn, Feock and Gerrans. Eat your heart our Saffron Walden!
Growing and harvesting saffron is what makes it the most expensive spice in the world, it is very labour intensive. Saffron is in fact the dried red stigma of the autumn flowering purple Crocus Sativus. Each flower has to be hand picked and the three delicate stigma removed. It takes roughly 200 flowers to produce just 1 gram of saffron. But the result is a versatile spice with a unique flavour.
The name saffron comes from the Arabic word za’faran meaning yellow which gives a clue to its other use as a dye. Saffron also has medicinal properties and known to have a similar narcotic effect to opium. During the 18th and 19th centuries it was used in various opioid preparations, such a laudanum, for pain relief.
Saffron went out of fashion in cooking in England but it continued to remain a firm favourite here in Cornwall. As a child I remember posting saffron cakes to various Cornish relations across the country because here was the only place you could find it.
Recently however it has seen a bit of a revival with chefs both down here and in other parts of the country increasingly putting it on their menus and a small holding in Norfolk has even begun growing the precious crop. So maybe one day saffron will grow again in the county that has taken this delicious spice from ancient Persia into its culture and its heart.