Saffron – the golden spice

HAVE you ever wondered how Saffron Walden got its name? Or why Saffron cake is one of Cornwall’s most famous dishes?

Nowadays most saffron is grown in Spain and Iran, but for centuries, England had a flourishing saffron industry, whose roots are largely lost in time and myth.

In her new book, Fool’s Gold: A History of British Saffron, food writer and historian Sam Bilton tells the fascinating and mysterious story of this fragrant golden spice, and tries to unravel the threads of its complicated history, through pilgrimages, crusades and, of course, the Romans.

Of course, if the origins of a development or product are a bit uncertain, you can always fall back on the Romans! As Sam says, it is “the default explanation for cultural developments throughout history from road building to England’s love affair with spices.”

One version comes from the 16th century historian Hakluyt, who wrote extensively about the explorations and discoveries of the great seamen and adventurers of Elizabethan times. He describes how a pilgrim “purposing to do good to his country,” stole a head of saffron, hid it in his palmer’s staff and brought it back to plant in Walden, the ancient town that became Saffron Walden.

Saffron was valued as a culinary and medicinal spice, and as a dye. And it is its use as a dye that gives Sam one of her most dramatic stories – a Cambridge cloth dyer, Anne Turner, who was executed in 1615 at Tyburn for poisoning a man at the request of the infamous Countess Frances Howard.

Nowadays we mostly think of saffron as a delicate spice that infuses rice, cakes and sauces with a golden tinge and a flavour like no other. Chef and broadcaster Rick Stein compares it to a scent: “It is so complex that it’s almost impossible to describe how it tastes.”

Sam Bilton’s researches took her through centuries of exploration and culinary history, as well as meeting some of today’s English saffron growers (who were once called “crokers”).

There is fascinating advice on cultivation and medicinal and culinary uses, and chapters covering its use in meat. poultry, game and fish dishes, cakes and breads, and puddings. There are delicious recipes for vegetarians and even for saffron in drinks.

Some of the recipes are adapted from historic collections and books, from cooks’ journals, Victorian kitchens and even Anglo-Indian households.

Fool’s Gold is a delight – a valuable addition to anyone’s collection of cookbooks and a great read for anyone interested in the global history of food in general and our love affair with spices in particular.

* Fool’s Gold: A History of British Saffron, by Sam Bilton is published by Prospect Books

Pictured: Saffron flowers, threads and Cornish saffron cake.