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Saffron, tin mines and an accident – Fresh from the oven

August 1, 2012

Saffron bunsWhat have the two things in the picture below got in common?

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.

Wheal Betsy and saffron

What’s the connection between tin mines in Devon and Cornwall and saffron?

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.

Saffron buns

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.

Saffron buns

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!

Saffron bunsAll 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.

Saffron buns

Saffron buns


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
200g currants


  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.

Saffron bunsAdd a bit of sunshine to your buns this August.

  1. August 1, 2012 1:09 am

    These look stunning. I love saffron in baking but am so nervous to experiment with such an expensive ingredient!

  2. August 1, 2012 1:16 am

    Wow Sally, you make baking look so easy! Mine would never look like yours in a million years. I love how you’ve perfected your art of baking over time to produce something as wonderful as these golden buns. Can’t wait to see you tomorrow. How annoying that you broke your lens! I love your holiday posts – keep them coming!

  3. August 1, 2012 1:26 am

    Oh, I’d love to visit Devon! Those buns looks amazing.



  4. August 1, 2012 8:05 am

    sally, your photos are looking great! x

  5. August 1, 2012 11:40 am

    I love this challenge! Thanks for the lovely post about the area as well 🙂 Good luck with the new lens and repairing your camera

  6. August 1, 2012 11:41 am

    Had I known you’d baked saffron buns, I’d have been right over! I love them, my Cornish Gran used to make a saffron cake (loaf). It’s hard to find nice ones nowadays, with all the traditional bakers closing and the horrid supermarket stuff taking over. They look beautiful.

  7. August 1, 2012 11:50 am

    I feel nervous too when baking in my in-law’s kitchen, although I feel the same way in every other kitchen but mine.
    I’m really sorry to hear about your camera lens since I know how expensive they are. Hope everything is going to be all right.

  8. August 1, 2012 3:26 pm

    Oh these look so cute 🙂
    This is going to be fun 🙂

    • August 2, 2012 12:51 am

      Tina – I can’t wait to see what your saffron buns are like – your baking prowess is unrivalled.

  9. August 1, 2012 4:44 pm

    What a beautiful post. I’ve been very slack with FFTO recently but I might just have to give these a go!

  10. August 1, 2012 11:13 pm

    Beautiful post Sally:) And all these pics have been taken with a broken lens? I cannot really fathom how difficult it must be to chip off your lens. I’ll stop breathing I guess!

    Revel buns, no – I haven’t ever had them. But considering saffron is so readily available in Dubai I’m definitely going to try making these (remember I told you that baking made me a bit jittery!)

    It’s wonderful to see you going for the Food Blogger Connect…
    and found it funny that such a fab cook like you should feel nervous in Mum-in-law’s kitchen! Incidentally the post I’m writing now is on my Mum-n-law’s pickles… so summers must be bringing all of us together (Mum and Daughter-in lwas!)

    • August 2, 2012 12:50 am

      I’d love to see how your buns turn out Ishita.

  11. August 2, 2012 12:21 am

    I’m sorry to hear about your camera, but a new lens will be very exciting indeed! And I can’t believe they traded saffron for tin by weight! That’s like trading feathers for metal! Lovely looking buns – I’ve never added saffron to bread, but I will try now, as I have a big box of Spanish saffron needing to be used! Thanks! 🙂

    • August 2, 2012 12:49 am

      I think I’ve mislead you Celia! Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world (by weight)! Love to see what your saffron loaves look like.

  12. August 2, 2012 1:22 am

    OMG a recipe that speaks to the bun-lovin core of me!! Oh Sally, these are indeed floofy, and it’s incredible how you were able to capture the yumminess with a broken lens. I say we put this on the menu for our gingerbread session in December. I know it wouldn’t be half as floofy if I make it at home. Please?

    • August 2, 2012 1:23 am

      oh and I love the historical intro. Keep more foodie history coming, I’ll lap up every word…

      • August 4, 2012 11:19 am

        I love the back-story about food and recipes too. Glad they were Floofy enough.No problem about December!

  13. August 2, 2012 12:01 pm

    Oh Sally I adore saffron and saffron + yeast in bread is a dream (thinking of my saffron brioche) Love reading about your stay in the UK. Devon is really a place I would love to go. So much of England I would like to see. After Somerset this year I am very motivated. Also kudos for baking these under the watchful eyes of your mother-in-law. It would have made me rather nervous LOL!

  14. August 2, 2012 12:03 pm

    Oh and OMG! you dropped the camera – my worst nightmare. Sorry to hear about that. So which lens did you order? Can I help?

    • August 4, 2012 11:15 am

      I finally went for a 35mm 1.8 Meeta – in the hope I can mend my 18-55 mm. I’m already having fun with it – the challenges of a fixed lens makes you more creative sometimes I think.

  15. August 2, 2012 1:20 pm

    What a wonderful name – revel buns – and they look so, so delicious. I’m sorry to hear about your lens. What a nightmare, but how amazing that you managed to hold it onto the camera to take the shots. That deserves a special award. Good luck with the new one.

    • August 4, 2012 11:13 am

      The name revel buns appeals to me too! I’ve learned so much just researching lenses in the process so some good has come out of bad.

  16. August 2, 2012 2:35 pm

    I love the history behind these buns! your photos are gorgeous!

    • August 4, 2012 11:11 am

      Thanks Jenny – it’s amazing what you find out about traditional recipes once you start looking.

  17. jillianmckee permalink
    August 2, 2012 10:28 pm


    I have a quick question about your blog, do you think you could e-mail me?


  18. August 3, 2012 8:12 am

    These look fantastic and remind me of my childhood – my mom used to make saffron raisin buns every Christmas and now I’m craving them! I’m featuring this post in today’s Food Fetish Friday (with a link-back and attribution). I hope you have no objections and I love the inspiration I get from your food…

    • August 4, 2012 11:10 am

      Popping off to look at Food Fetish Friday right now – sounds intriguing…and I’d be delighted to be mentioned. Saffron buns are also baked in Scandinavia for Christmas I believe.

  19. ramblingtart permalink
    August 3, 2012 8:35 am

    Oh, those are such pretty buns. 🙂 I love homemade breads like this. 🙂

    • August 4, 2012 11:09 am

      Thanks – I really hope you’ll join the challenge.

  20. August 3, 2012 11:11 pm

    Your buns look wonderful Sally. I’ve been meaning to make saffron cake for years and still haven’t managed it. I only got around to making Cornish Splits this year – truly shocking. Can’t believe a whole year has gone since you were last down our way. Hope you have a great time.

    • August 4, 2012 11:08 am

      You should make saffron cake for the challenge – would love to see it. Cornish splits sound interesting – another thing for my ‘must bake’ list. Back to Devon mid August…will be having a cream tea at Cothele for sure.

  21. August 4, 2012 10:07 am

    These look fab! I shall definitely be making them. But ouch, your camera, I feel your pain.

    • August 4, 2012 11:07 am

      So glad you’ll be baking Euan – your results are always lovely. Yes – there was a collective intake of breath from everyone around me as my camera hit the floor!

  22. August 4, 2012 3:58 pm

    I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award and One Versatile Blogger awards please check out my comments on your wonderful blog at

    • August 4, 2012 9:01 pm

      Really touched by this honour Chef Lippe. I loved visiting the other blogs you mentioned too. I hope you’ll understand if I don’t post my own list – have a huge stack of articles I’d like to post about first (so many fascinating foodie things so little times!)

  23. August 6, 2012 1:40 am

    I absolutely love this saffron twist on currant buns. Shall give it a go!

  24. August 7, 2012 12:38 am

    What a truly wonderful post Sally, very interesting! I love the old Engine houses in Devon and Cornwall. I just saw a program about them on Coast (BBC) about how they worked. Nice to see. I’ve never baked saffron buns, but I will do! Enjoy your time in the UK!

    • August 7, 2012 11:34 am

      Excellent – really glad you’ll be baking these Regula.

  25. August 9, 2012 6:31 pm

    How interesting about the connection between tin and saffron – who knew?! I love the flavour of saffron in sweet baked goods (the Swedes bake a saffron bun that I adore) so I am bound to like these. So sorry to hear about your camera – I stumbled on an escalator on Friday and fell with mine around my neck – luckily I broke my own fall and hence only a light blow to the camera, but it was still a moment of pure horror! Good luck in getting it fixed…

    • August 11, 2012 10:59 am

      Thanks Jeanne – I found out about the Swedish saffron buns when researching for this post. So interesting how different nations arrive at the same culinary conclusions sometimes.

  26. August 10, 2012 4:16 pm

    have -to – make – this..!!!

    • August 11, 2012 10:57 am

      Hope so Anita – always enjoy your FFTO entries

  27. littletash permalink
    August 11, 2012 1:18 am

    Yay, I’m from the West Country and these look like home! It’s the middle of Friday night, but I now want to start baking. 🙂

    • August 11, 2012 10:57 am

      My favourite part of the world.

  28. August 13, 2012 9:28 am

    I spent a lot of my child time on Holiday in Devon. I loved it! 🙂 Your saffron buns look utterly tasty & divine even! 🙂 Yummmm!

  29. August 13, 2012 11:48 pm

    Sally, thank you so much for hosting this month and what a fantastic recipe it looks. Will do my best to participate.

  30. August 14, 2012 1:24 am

    I’ve never heard or seen of these before, but I have some saffron in my cupboard from my trip to India so I am keen to give them a go!

    • August 14, 2012 1:50 am

      Great – look forward to seeing them (and glad I found your lovely site through your comment).

  31. August 17, 2012 12:52 pm

    Would love one of these saffron buns right now, they look so fresh and delicious, I guess the only way to have one, is to bake them! Your expensive drop must have been so annoying and I can only imagine how you must have felt. 🙂

  32. August 19, 2012 9:43 pm

    Wonderful recipe….and those buns look mouth watering….

  33. August 20, 2012 4:36 pm

    I just made paella yesterday and added saffron to the rice with paprika, rosemary and salt. I never can tell it is in the dish. what does it taste like anyway? Your pictures are beautiful as are the buns. My husband and son are both mining engineers so I always love hearing stories about miners.

    • August 21, 2012 11:24 am

      How to describe the flavour of saffron? It’s a bit bitter with a layer of sweetness (similar to turmeric type sweetness) and slightly earthy.

  34. August 23, 2012 1:37 pm

    Ah, saffron buns remind me of Christmas, as they are traditionally served then in my native Sweden. Those buns tend to be formed into an S or 8 shape and nowadays often has quark cheese in the dough to keep them moist. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll have time to participate (looked up the challenge too late this month) but looking forward to seeing everyones contributions!
    Also, dropping your camera must have been a shock, but your photos still turned out fantastic!!

    • August 24, 2012 1:43 am

      This is so interesting – I’ve learned so much about saffron buns since making them.

  35. August 28, 2012 3:52 am

    Tried it and loved it 🙂

  36. September 10, 2012 12:14 pm

    These look and sound amazing! Lovely photos too. Have never thought of adding saffron to a sweet bun. Yum.

  37. MissMangue permalink
    March 25, 2013 12:51 pm

    You just make my day. This is my favorite breakfast. I do follow your blog now.

  38. Lorena permalink
    June 8, 2013 3:29 am

    They look wonderful! My great grandfather was born and worked (in the tin mines) in Redruth, so Cornish food has a special place in my heart.

  39. March 2, 2014 6:54 am

    I do have one question – could I use blackcurrants instead of the small raisins known as currants? I’m allergic to grapes, and wouldn’t want to miss out on something this tasty.

    • March 2, 2014 7:31 am

      Any dried berries would work – perhaps cranberries or blueberries. You could try fresh blackcurrants – they would bleed into the dough a bit but I think they’d be very tasty.

  40. June 19, 2014 6:42 pm

    Agree to this message and we’ll rescue a fictional critter!


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