When I was a boy, growing up in Torbay in Devonshire, we would occasionally have saffron buns as a treat. As I recall, they were only sold in one bakery and they looked very similar to the ones in the image below. The buns were markedly yellow, but otherwise looked like other fruit buns and we ate them cut in half and spread with butter. I had no idea how saffron was obtained, although I knew it came from crocuses, and I was also aware that the buns were a little more expensive than the more usual varieties: they also had a characteristic taste. There was some mention in conversation that saffron buns were made for celebrations in neighbouring Cornwall, but I had no idea that saffron was used anywhere else in the World, whether in buns or in any other type of cooking. Mine was a parochial life.
Saffron buns, of a characteristic form, are a feature of the Santa Lucia festival in Sweden that is celebrated on 13th December each year . In this tradition, children take part in a procession in their schools, where a girl is dressed as the saint and has lighted candles (or battery-driven equivalents) in a crown on her head. After the singing of traditional Santa Lucia songs, the festival ends with everyone tucking into the buns (lussekatter), although why they should contain saffron is not known, as the history of the tradition is sketchy.
Saffron (the stamens of a crocus, see above) is used in a wide array of dishes, both savoury and sweet, as well as in baking buns, and it was already established as a spice in Old Testament times . In an article in The Guardian, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall gives a description of the origins of saffron (and also how it came to be grown in the part of the country where I was brought up) :
Saffron [the saffron crocus] first grew in western Asia. The Moguls took it from Persia to India, and it has been cultivated in Kashmir since the third century A.D.. By the 10th Century, Arabs were growing it in Spain, where some of the world’s finest saffron is still produced. In the 13th Century, crusaders returned from Asia Minor with crocus corms and began growing it in Italy, France and Germany. The story goes that a pilgrim smuggled a corm back to England in the 14th century.. ..Within a couple of centuries, saffron meadows spread in a precious purple carpet across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, where Market Walden even changed its name to Saffron Walden..
..But in some ways East Anglian “crokers”, as the crocus growers were known, are parvenus. Here in the West Country, we’ve been going for gold a lot longer. We exchanged tin for saffron with Phoenician traders and crocus meadows existed around Bude until the 19th century; West Country cooks turned the magical stamens into sunny loaves and cakes. Historically, we could literally count saffron as a local ingredient; traditionally, we still do.
In the article, Hugh then does on to give recipes for: saffron chicken with rice; saffron honey ice-cream; and Cornish saffron tea bread (just like the buns of my boyhood). The recipe for the latter is adapted from one by Elizabeth David, who recommended eating the bread with a glass of sauternes – something which would not have met with approval in our household.
The process of producing the best Spanish saffron is described in an article in the “i” newspaper of 21st November 2018 (see above). Crocuses are picked by hand, making sure that stems are broken near their base, and the flowers collected into baskets that are taken to be spread out on a long table. Picking is always carried out early in the morning, before the fierce heat of the sun affects the flowers adversely, and the process of plucking out the three stamens is then carried out by hand, to be followed by gentle drying over a fire. The article goes on to say that “The journey from field to jar must be completed within 24 hours to maintain freshness and comply with the EU-backed Denominacion de Origen Protegida (DOP) regulations”. It is no wonder that saffron is so expensive, wherever it is produced, and many substitutes  are passed off as the real thing. However, these never have the same density of colour and depth of flavour.
Saffron is not just of value in colouring and flavouring food: like many spices, it also has medicinal properties, including its value as an anti-oxidant . It has also been used traditionally to reduce the effects of urinary tract infections and to ease childbirth . Research on animals points to its value in treating some cardiovascular conditions, depression and macular degeneration, prompting suggestions that its biochemical constituents – crocin and crocetin – should be investigated further in a therapeutic role .
This throws up the question: did our ancient forebears first use saffron as a medicine or in colouring and flavouring food? We cannot know the answer and the selection of saffron must have come by trial and error at a time when our (non-human?) ancestors tried eating anything that they found, before settling on those that were edible or had a use. From there, they must have discarded the whole crocus and begun using just the stamens to concentrate the effect of the spice, using drying to produce an even more potent product.
The distribution of the native saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is very similar to that of Colchicum spp., another crocus-like plant (see above) but from a different botanical family . These also have medicinal properties, as they contain colchicine , long known as a treatment for gout and other joint problems. Unfortunately, colchicine has unpleasant side effects when taken in quantity and our ancestors would have developed nausea and gastro-intestinal disorders if they ate a lot of Colchicum plants before discerning their medicinal value.
We’re now moving off topic and into ethnobotany, but it is fascinating to consider how we came to select the wide range of foodstuffs that we enjoy today, especially as we now have a global perspective. It’s all a long way from the saffron buns I enjoyed as a boy in Torbay and I wasn’t sufficiently curious then to find out more. I am now, though.
 Song of Solomon 4:14 in The Holy Bible.
 V.Khilare, A.Tiknaik, B.Prakash, B.Ughade, G.Korhale, D.Nalage, N.Ahmed, C.Khedkar and G.Khedkar (2019) Multiple tests on saffron find new adulterant materials and reveal that 1st grade saffron is rare in the market. Food Chemistry 272:635-642.
 G.K.Broadhead, A.Chang, J.R.Grigg and P.McCluskey (2016) Efficacy and safety of saffron supplementation: current clinical findings. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 56:2767-2776.
 C.Brickell (editor-in-chief) (1996) The Royal Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants. London, Dorling Kindersley.
 B.Dasgeb, D.Kornreich, K.McGuinn, L.Okon, I.Brownell and D.L.Sackett (2018) Colchicine: an ancient drug with novel applications. British Journal of Dermatology 178:350-356. et al.
My thanks to those who posted on the “Torbay Undiscovered, Lost, Forgotten, Unloved!” Facebook page in response to my request for details about saffron buns in Torbay.