Springtime is always saffron-time to me. As soon as the crocuses appear with their delicate beauty belying frost-defying strength I start to lay in stocks of saffron threads. Even though I know full-well it is a particular type of autumn-flowering crocus which give us saffron and not the Spring ones at all. Maybe the crocuses’ brightness reminds me of the brightness which saffron will add to my Spring cooking. Or more likely it is because crocuses mean we are fast-track to Easter’s promise of a holiday weekend of lazy breakfasts bathed in early sunshine, with really good coffee and freshly baked saffron-spiced breads.
Britain has a long heritage of using precious and expensive saffron to mark the special occasion-ness of Easter baking. From the bread and bun Easter traditions of Devon, Cornwall, Northumberland, Essex and probably many other British regions too; through to ubiquitous hot cross buns. Traditional recipes for those – like mine here – call for steeping saffron threads in the milk for the dough. Do that and when it comes to eating you’ll notice the other spices have taken on a more rounded, almost honeyed note. Without it the bun ends up paler in both taste and colour.
Saffron’s high-value allure comes from just how difficult it is to produce. Many other luxury foods have had their mystique somewhat tarnished by modern production methods making them cheaper and more accessible. Not saffron. Its harvesting still on the whole has to be done by hand-picking the delicate flowers so as to not damage the slender, red saffron filaments inside or the flower’s ability to re-grow. Think how low down to the ground crocuses are. Picking those is pain-staking, back-breaking work. Not to mention just how many bloomin’ flowers you have to grow and harvest to get a meaningful stash of saffron.
Yet even with those challenges swathes of East Anglia were once given over to such saffron-production. Places which had the right kind of fertile soil and south-facing light. Saffron Walden in Essex isn’t called that for nothing. But the difficulty of production and the related costs of the saffron led to Britain’s saffron industry plummetting from its 14th to 17th centuries heyday as it later became easier to import Spanish saffron and other new and exciting ‘foreign’ flavours such as vanilla. Iran, Spain, Greece, Kashmir and Morocco are where we mostly get our saffron from these days.
There is no reason, though, that British saffron couldn’t become a thing again. Sally Francis is leading the industry’s resurgence from Norfolk by managing over the last 6 or so years to build a very fine business producing premium grade ‘Norfolk Saffron’. Its quality is testament to the regions’ sadly somewhat forgotten saffron industry. Norfolk Saffron is right up there with the world’s finest other Grade 1 saffrons with top-notch colour, aroma and flavour.
I use it for fish dishes such as chowder, mussels with cider, or a crab and saffron soup. Chicken dishes too; and paella of course. On the sweet front I think about using saffron for anything that calls for pistachio, white chocolate, orange, pears, cardamom or custard.
The smoothness of dairy is an excellent base for saffron’s unique flavour. I’ve already decided that this year my Easter Sunday lunch is going to end with pear and almond tart served with a very large scoop of this saffron ice-cream from Norfolk Saffron’s own recipe book. And I am somehow certain that the saffron in the ice-cream – and my Easter buns – is going to taste all the better for knowing that it comes from a British company that is doing its darndest to resurrect the tradition of saffron production.
Saffron Ice Cream (from ‘Saffron’ by Sally Francis)
20 saffron threads
600ml full cream milk
200ml double cream
140g caster sugar
5 free-range egg yolks
- Bring the milk and cream to the boil, add the saffron, remove from heat and leave to infuse overnight.
- The following morning, beat the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until smooth and white. Pour in a little of the saffron infusion and beat again.
- Place the eggs mixture and the rest of the saffron infusion in a saucepan and stir over a gentle heat until the mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve, rescue the saffron threads and return them to the mixture. Allow to cool.
- When cold, churn the mixture in an ice-cream machine. (Alternatively, chill in a bowl in the freezer, remove at 1 hour intervals and beat until it has set.)
For more information about the award-winning Norfolk Saffron, including details of how to use it, visit www.norfilksaffron.co.uk.