Saffron buns and lardy cake were at the top of the 'wish list' of good things I wanted to taste while travelling in the United Kingdom. To my huge delight, saffron buns featured on the shelves of numerous patisseries and bakeries. My favourites would be found at (Rick) Stein's Patisserie in Lanadwell Street, Padstow – fortuitously right opposite the inn where we were staying. Suffice to say I called in there often.
Lardy cake would prove to be more elusive than saffron buns. More on this in a future article.
Back at home, I tracked down a recipe for saffron buns in Theodora Fitzgibbon's A Taste of England – one of a set of English cookbooks that were kindly given to me many years ago by someone who enjoyed reading my weekly newspaper column. (Thank you, I still treasure them!).
Research tells me that saffron was grown in parts of Essex and Cambridgeshire from 1450-1560 or thereabouts. It was used predominantly to dye wool, although some texts suggest that it was used as a pigment in manuscripts, as well as having medicinal and culinary uses.
A writer in the 1839 edition of The Essex Literary Journal (also known as A Monthly Repository of Literature, and the Arts and Sciences Connected with the County) noted that saffron was grown extensively in the neighbourhood of Saffron Walden and said: 'the flowers are gathered early in the morning and the stigmas, with a portion of the style, carefully picked out of the flowers. They are then dried upon a kiln, under a pressure, to form cake saffron, or loosely, which is then called "hay" saffron... it was considered by the ancients to be a remedy of great efficiency, but in modern practice it is found to possess few sensible qualities, beyond the orange colour which it imparts to alcohol, water, etc.'
Ms Fitzgibbon says that saffron buns were preferred to Hot Cross Buns at Easter and the folk who grew or gathered saffron were known as 'crockers'. 'The last field to produce crocus was in Castle Street under the shadow of the Norman castle in Saffron Walden,' she wrote.
The recipe for Cornish saffron buns I'm sharing here is my adaptation of Theodora Fitzgibbon's receipt, published after her extensive travels in 1986.
CORNISH SAFFRON BUNS
1/2 teaspoon saffron strands
1 tablespoon hot water
450g baker's flour, sifted
1/4 teaspoon mixed spice
75g butter, diced, at room temperature
50g chopped candied peel
7g dried yeast
1 teaspoon sugar, extra
1 egg, lightly whisked
Soak the saffron strands in the hot water and leave to infuse. Place the flour, mixed spice, currants, peel and sugar into a bowl. Rub in the butter. Mix to combine, make a well in the centre, then set the bowl aside. Warm the milk to tepid, then pour it into a Pyrex jug. Add the dried yeast and extra sugar and work it up to a froth using a dessertspoon. Leave it on a warm windowsill for a few minutes, then add it to the flour/butter/fruit mixture, along with the saffron and soaking water. Using your hands, mix to form a soft dough and knead into a ball.
Sprinkle the dough with a scant dessertspoon of flour, cover with a clean tea towel or cling film, then leave it in a warm corner of your kitchen and allow it to rise for an hour or until it has doubled in size. Dust a board or your bench lightly with flour. Turn out the dough and knead it for a few minutes, then cut it into eight segments and form each into a little bun. Place these buns onto a baking sheet that you have lined with parchment. Cover with the tea towel again and leave to rise again, perhaps for up to 30 minutes at the most.
Preheat your oven to 210 degrees C. Place the buns into the oven and bake for 10-12 minutes. Brush with the egg wash, then bake for 2-3 minutes longer. The buns should be golden brown and sound hollow when tapped underneath. Remove and cool for a little while on a wire rack. Serve with butter or clotted cream. Makes 8.
Images and text copyright Liz Posmyk, Good Things.
Postcards from Padstow...
Tell me dear readers, do you have a wish-list of things you'd like to taste, see and do when you travel? What's on your list? And have you ever tasted or baked Cornish saffron buns – or, indeed, lardy cake?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.