One of Cornwall’s most-loved foods, one which every visitor to the county really should try, is saffron cake. Saffron cake and saffron buns are delicious fruit breads, best served at tea time. The sharp tang of saffron and spices adds a splash of the exotic to the baking, unique to this Cornish version of tea cake.
Saffron is the stigma of an Asian crocus, the female part of the flower that receives the pollen (in the crocus’ case, these are three yellow tips in the centre of the flower). These are painstakingly plucked and dried to become saffron, a slow and fiddly job – hence saffron’s high price per kilo.
It’s hard to describe what saffron adds to a dish, aside from that vivid yellow colour. It tastes faintly metallic – but in a good way. It has the petrolly edge of Sauvignon Blanc; and a common description is that it tastes of iodine. Many of us aren’t familiar with iodine, but can definitely pick up on general medicinal tones. This isn’t exactly selling saffron – however from cakes to paellas, it can certainly lift a dish, and gives a wonderful, almost ozoney flavour.
How did this exotic flower end up in so many domestic Cornish kitchens? Because here saffron is no rarefied ingredient – it’s a staple of afternoon tea, not just reserved for the wealthy, but a part of the Cornish diet.
The romantic image is that the Phoenician traders back in 400BC exchanged it for Cornish tin. (If you want to make this image even more romantic, picture them landing with their cases of saffron at St Michael’s Mount, thought to be the ancient port of Ictis). As there’s no real evidence that saffron was grown in quantity in Cornwall (the most famous British producer was, of course, Saffron Walden in Essex), it does make sense that it reached us through the spice routes.
Because to us Brits, Cornwall is at the end of the country. However if you’re coming from Asia and Africa with a boatful of silk and spices, Cornwall is only the beginning. We’re a place of ports and sailors, harbours and traders. It’s no wonder that goods (and news) reached here first. However, what is truly marvellous about Cornwall’s relationship with saffron is how it took this alien spice, as used by Cleopatra, and domesticated it. Cornish saffron cake is both exotic and homely; its comforting taste and hearty texture belie its glamorous associations.
Cornish “cakey tea” is a Sunday evening staple, designed for comfort and well-being. It comprises jam-then-cream scones, “thunder and lightning” (with treacle instead of jam), yeast cake, and saffron buns. (How anyone manages this after a roast lunch is anybody’s guess…) Saffron cake or saffron buns is an essential component, and is similar to a tea cake with cinnamon, nutmeg and dried fruit. Serve with Cornish clotted cream (although Elizabeth David recommended a sweet desert wine. We do too…).
Here at The Cornwall, we often use this luscious spice in our restaurants. It works wonderfully well with fish, and is also an asset for rice-based dishes such as paella and risotto (it’s the main flavour in Risotto alla Milanese). And, if you pop into The Parkland Terrace in the afternoon, you can enjoy a cosy Cornish Cream Tea. A proper treat…