Saffron, the royalist of spices

This pungent, vibrant, intriguing spice has captured the hearts and imagination of thousands before me, leaving it’s stain on a fascinating and turbulent history. The tiny thread-like stigma from a variety of crocus known as crocus sativus is the world’s most expensive spice. It is used to colour and flavour food, dye clothes and as well as having some health benefits.

The name derives from the Arabic word zafran, meaning yellow, a reference to the golden colour that saffron turns both our food and clothes. With bright purple flowers each plant only produces just 4 and each flower only 3 stigmas. It takes over 75,000 flowers to produce 500g of spice (450 for just 10g). Add to this the fact that even today saffron strands are picked and removed by hand, it’s easy to understand why saffron is, ounce for ounce, more expensive than gold.

From ancient times, it’s colour, aroma and flavour seduced royalty. Cleopatra bathed in it, believing it made her more alluring. The Romans alleged it would cure many ills. Indians used it to dye clothes whilst Buddhist priests decreed that all their robes would be dyed orange with golden saffron. Trade brought wealth and power to merchants and growers but along with that came conflict culminating in a 14 day saffron war in 1374.

Originating in the Arab world, saffron spread from India in the east and to Europe and as far as America to the west. By the 16th century it was being farmed in large quantities in England. Former geophysicist turned saffron farmer David Smale tells us “these days saffron is more associated with exotic locations such as Iran, Morocco and Spain, but in the past English saffron has been, by reputation, the best in the world”. David, among other British saffron farmers, is looking to put the UK back on the saffron map.

Above all else saffron is celebrated and loved for it’s culinary delights. The flavour is  hard to define, but I liken it to a pungent, aromatic, but slightly metallic honey with powerful overtones of hay or dry grass made warm by the sun; it is both exotic and familiar. Often associated with rice dishes such as Indian biryani, Arabic pilaf and Spanish paella this golden spice is also the star of many classic seafood soups, bouillabaisse from Marseille, being the most famous. It is just as good in sweet dishes such as cakes, breads and even ice cream. I love to add a teaspoon of strands to vodka or gin adding an aromatic flavour and glorious colour.

Dried and fresh saffron

Saffron facts you should know

Rich in Vitamins A, C and a good source of beta carotene, saffron has long been regarded as having medicinal benefits. It has antibacterial qualities and can aid digestion, help treat stomach aches and bronchitis. There are on going studies to see if it can be beneficial in helping prevent cancer.

Today over 90% of the saffron we buy is grown in Iran, often then being packaged in Spain.

Price does not necessarily indicate quality. Buy, try and find the brand you like best, from a reputable supplier.

Buy strands rather than the powder, which should be more red than yellow or orange. The redder the stigmas, the better the quality.

Add saffron cautiously, a little can go a long way and remember you can add but you can’t take away.

As a rule saffron is steeped in water or another liquid before being added to a dish as it isn’t water-soluble. However certain dishes, such as Indian biryani, Arab Pilaf and Spanish paella have the strands scattered over the top of the rice as it cooks, staining it that wonderful golden hue where it sits.

If you are lucky enough to have a saffron farm nearby, buy direct from them for freshness.

Recipes

Strawberry and saffron jam

Make: 4 x 300 ml jars

This recipe is adapted from one that is made at a local saffron fam in The Charente Maritime Safran de l’Estaire. The addition of saffron is subtle but intriguing. You will need a sugar thermometer for this recipe and because strawberries have a low pectin level the resulting jam is not as set as some, but nonetheless delicious.

2 teaspoons saffron strands

1.5kg strawberries, hulled

juice 1 large lemon

1.25 kg granulated sugar

Grind the saffron strands to form a powder using a pestle and mortar. Set aside.

Put the strawberries and lemon juice into a large saucepan and place over a low heat until the strawberries soften. Then simmer gently, uncovered for about 20 minutes until really pulpy. Carefully remove about 1/3 of the strawberries using a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add the sugar and the powdered saffron and stir gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring to the boil and simmer without stirring for about 40 minutes or until the jam reaches 105c/221f on a sugar thermometer. Remove any scum from the surface of the jam.

Meanwhile, sterilise the jars. Wash and dry the jars thoroughly and sit, facing upwards, in a roasting tin lined with baking paper. Place in a preheated oven 100c/220f until required.

Ladle the jam straight into the hot sterilised jars and seal immediately. Label and date the jars once the jam is cold. Store for 2up to 12 months in a cool, dark place. Refrigerate once opened.

Home semi-salted cod with saffron aioli

Serves: 4

Salt cod with aioli is a classic combination popular throughout Spain and southern France.

4 x 150 g cod fillets

2 tbsp sea salt

750g sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle

350g French beans, trimmed

a handful flat leaf parsley leaves

saffron aioli

1/4 tsp saffron strands

1 tbsp boiling water

2 egg yolks

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 tsp Dijon mustard

2 tsp white wine vinegar

200 ml mild extra virgin olive oil

Place the cod fillets in a plastic container. Scatter over the salt, turning the fish so that it is salted all over. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for 2 hours. Turn the fish over half way through.

Place the saffron strands in a small bowl and soak in boiling water for 5 minutes. Place the egg yolks, garlic, mustard, vinegar and salt and pepper in a bowl and whisk with electric beaters until pale and frothy. Very gradually whisk in the oil a little at a time until the mixture thickens and becomes glossy. Add the saffron and the liquid and whisk again. Cover the surface with cling film and set aside until required.

Preheat the oven to 200c/400f/gas mark 6 and line a roasting tin with baking paper. Place the potatoes in the prepared tin, season well and drizzle over 1 tablespoon of the oil, stir well to coat. Roast for 40-45 minutes, stirring halfway through until the potatoes are browned and tender.

Wash and dry the salted fish. Place the fish in a steamer, cover and cook for 4-5 minutes until cooked through. Rest for a few minutes. Meanwhile, cook the beans in a pan of lightly salted, boiling water for 2-3 minutes until al dente. Drain well.

Divide the potatoes and beans between warmed serving plates and top with the fish and a spoonful of the saffron aioli. Drizzle with a little extra oil. Garnish with some parsley and serve at once.

Risotto Milanese with a twist

Serves: 4

A classic risotto Milanese is made with saffron and frequently served with osso bucco. Here the marrow bones are used on their own to add a lovely depth of flavour to the rice dish.

4 small veal bones (ask your local butcher to source these for you)

4 sprigs fresh thyme, plus a few leaves to garnish

1-1.2 litres good quality chicken stock, heated until just boiling

½ tsp saffron strands

50g butter

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

300g Arborio rice

100ml Italian dry white wine

50 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 225c/425f/gas mark 7 and line a roasting tin with baking paper. Place the veal bones in the prepared tin, sprinkle the marrow with salt and pepper and top with a thyme sprig. Roast for 20-25 minutes until the marrow is hot all the way through (check with a metal skewer) and sitting in a pool of melted marrow. Keep warm.

Place the stock and saffron strands in a saucepan and bring to a gentle simmer.

Meanwhile, melt the butter and in a saucepan and gently fry the shallots and garlic with a little salt and pepper over a low heat for 10 minutes until really soft, but not browned. Add the rice and stir for about 1 minute until all the grains appear glossy.

Increase the heat to medium. Add the wine and simmer for 2-3 minutes until it is almost all evaporated. Gradually start adding the gently simmering stock about 200 ml at a time, stirring the rice constantly with a wooden spoon, allowing the rice to absorb most of the stock before adding more. Continue this for about 20 minutes until the rice is al dente and the stock all but absorbed.

Stir in the Parmesan and the juices released from the bone marrow and as soon as the cheese is melted spoon into serving bowls. Place a roasted bone marrow in each bowl and serve scattered with extra cheese and some thyme leaves.

Simple lamb brochettes with saffron pilaf

Serves: 4

With its origins firmly imbedded in the Middle East saffron is integral to many of the countries classic dishes and pilaf is just one of these. Here the rice is cooked separately and served with brochettes of spiced lamb.  

250g basmati rice

500g boneless lamb neck

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 tbsp ground sumac

75g butter

2 onions, thinly sliced

2 tsp cumin seeds

4 cardamom pods, crushed

1 cinnamon stick, bruised

75g raisins

75g pistachio nuts, chopped

1 tsp saffron strands

2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

juice 1/2 lemon

salt and pepper

Greek yogurt and lemon wedges, to serve

Place the rice in a bowl and cover with cold water, leave to soak for a couple of hours. Drain and shake dry.

Cut the lamb into small bite size pieces. Combine 2 teaspoons of the sumac with the oil, salt and pepper and toss with the lamb. Thread onto skewers and set aside until ready to cook. Combine the remaining sumac with 1 teaspoon salt.

Melt 25 g of the butter in a frying pan and fry half the onions with a little salt for 15 minutes until crisp and golden. Set aside.

Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan and fry the remaining onion and spices with a little salt and pepper for 5 minutes. Add the rice, stir well to coat the grains and add 500ml water. Bring to the boil and scatter over the raisins, pistachio nuts and saffron, cover and simmer over a very gentle heat for 12 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave to sit for a further 10 minutes, then stir in the coriander.

Meanwhile, char-grill the lamb either under a hot grill or on a ridged grill pan for 2-3 minutes each side until cooked on the outside but still pink inside. Transfer to a plate and squeeze over the lemon juice.

Serve the rice scattered with the crispy onions and the brochettes with some yogurt and the sumac salt.

Orange, cashew and saffron syrup cake

Serves: 10

The saffron and orange syrup is poured over the cake as soon as it comes out of the oven, so it absorbs both flavour and moisture as it cools, resulting in a lovely aromatic and moist cake. It keeps well for 3 days wrapped in foil and stored in an airtight tin.

175g unsalted butter, softened

175g soft light brown sugar

grated zest 1 orange (juice reserved)

3 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tbsp orange flour water

225g self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

75g cashew nuts, finely ground

orange and saffron syrup

pared zest and juice 2 oranges

125g caster sugar

1/2 tsp saffron strands

crème fraiche or Greek yogurt, to serve

Preheat the oven to 170c/150f/gas mark 3 and grease and line a 1kg loaf tin. Using electric beaters, beat the butter, sugar and orange zest together until pale and creamy and then gradually whisk in the eggs and orange flower water a little at a time until combined, adding a little flour each time to prevent the mixture curdling. Fold in the remaining flour, baking powder and ground cashews until evenly combined.

Spoon into to the prepared tin and smooth the surface making a slight indent in the centre. Bake for 11/4 hours, covering the surface of the cake with foil after 45 minutes if it begins to brown. Pierce the cake with a skewer, if it comes out clean, the cake is ready.

Meanwhile, make the syrup. Place the juice of all 3 oranges and the sugar in a saucepan and bring slowly to the boiling, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Add the orange zest and simmer for 5 minutes or until the mixture is thickened and syrupy. Remove from the heat and stir in the saffron. Set aside to infuse, keeping it warm.

As soon as the cake is cooked, pierce holes all over the surface using a metal skewer. Spoon over 2/3 of the syrup and leave the cake to cool in the tin.

Turn the cooled cake out onto a platter and cut into slices. Serve drizzled with the remaining syrup and some crème fraiche or Greek yogurt.

First published by Food and Travel Magazine 2015

© recipes Louise Pickford

© photographs Ian Wallace

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