Saffron, tin mines and an accident – Fresh from the oven
When I visit a bakery in Devon or Cornwall I often see currant-studded, golden, saffron buns. They are bright yellow and sunny (a bit of food colouring enhances this in bakeries!) and perfect for summer tea-time or even for breakfast as they are light, buttery and not too sweet. As I’m here in the South-West of England for a few weeks in August I’ve chosen to make these traditional buns; and hope you will too for the Fresh From the Oven challenge.
Saffron is a rather exotic ingredient in rural England but apparently traders from the Middle East during the Bronze age exchanged this most valuable spice in the world (by weight) for tin. Mining in Devon and Cornwall began over 2000 years ago and produced most of the UK’s tin, copper and arsenic until mining ceased in the 20th century. Who knew there would be such a historic food link between the counties I love and the region where I now live.
Saffron buns are also known as ‘revel buns’ as they were often baked for special occasions (or revels) especially around Whitsun or Easter. How appropriate for the recent revels that took place in the form of the wonderful, bonkers Olympic opening ceremony. In West Cornwall, they are also called ‘tea treat buns’ as they were often baked for events known as Tea Treats, which were organised by Methodist churches and chapels for the local community.
I made these saffron buns in my Mother-in-law’s kitchen. I’m always a bit nervous under her gaze as she was a domestic science teacher and very good baker. She helped shape them and once out of the oven pronounced them very good – praise indeed. They are nice eaten warm, toasted with butter, jam or clotted cream. The saffron (which she had bought in Dubai) taste was subtle, a perfumed astringency in contrast to the sweet currants. I might try soaking the saffron overnight next time to intensify the flavour.
My time in Devon is always spent outdoors in the beautiful countryside as much as possible. One of my favourite walks is around Cholwell Riding Stables and up past Wheal Betsy (an engine house from a tin mine built around 1740) pictured above. While my teens and M-in-law were getting ready to ride across the moor (I prefer to walk the dog these days) I dropped my camera and – disaster – my lens popped off, chipping the mounting ring in the process. An expensive accident and I feel like something vital is missing from my life right now. I took these pictures holding the lens firmly onto the camera body so please excuse the ‘Heath-Robinson’ effect. I’ve ordered a lens mounting ring to try to repair mine; I’d love to know if anyone else has ever tried doing this. In addition, I took the plunge and have ordered a new lens; you may be aware that lenses cost more than cameras in many cases so fingers crossed I’ve made the right decision!
All that aside, I hope I’ve inspired you to make these easy, light, ‘floofay’ (as my friend Arva calls them) buns. Perhaps you’d like to experiment with a different spice, fruit or flour…or just follow this recipe. The full rules of the Fresh From the Oven challenge are here and Claire from Purely Food will host a round-up at the end of August. If you like the taste of saffron you might also like my panna cotta recipe which I made as part of the Taste of Yellow Monthly Mingle to commemorate the life Barbara Harris of Winos and Foodies.
Do let me know how you get on.
A large pinch of saffron threads
1 tablespoon water, boiling
600g strong plain flour
½ teaspoon salt
125g butter, unsalted
85g golden caster sugar
7g fast-action (easy blend) dried yeast
1 egg, beaten
150ml milk, lukewarm
- Put the saffron into a small bowl. Pour over 1 tablespoon of boiling water and steep until the water has cooled (leave overnight for a more intense colour and flavour).
- Put the flour and salt into a large bowl; rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar, yeast and saffron. Beat together the egg, milk, and 100ml water, then stir into the flour and mix to form a soft dough. If using dried active yeast, add this to the milk and water and whisk until dissolved before adding to the rest of the ingredients.
- Turn the dough out on to a lightly oiled surface and knead for 10 minutes (or use a machine with a dough hook) until smooth and elastic. Flatten out the dough, sprinkle over the currants, fold in the edges and then knead to combine.
- Divide the dough into 12 pieces. Shape each piece into a ball and flatten slightly. Place the balls on an oiled or lined baking tray and cover loosely with lightly oiled cling film. Leave the buns in a warm place until they have doubled in size (about an hour).
- Preheat the oven to 220 C (fan 200 C/ 425 F/Gas 7). Bake near the top of the oven for 15–20 minutes until the buns are a light golden colour. Serve slightly warm or cold with butter, jam or clotted cream.