Yellow goodbye

Food - Bee Wilson on superfluous saffron

"Saffron is an absurd seasoning which is esteemed in some countries just for the sake of its beautiful yellow colour." When I first read these words of Baron von Rumohr, in his commonsense masterpiece, The Essence of Cookery (1822), I felt release from a lifetime's pretence and hypocrisy. "Absurd" is just the word to describe a spice whose costliness and universal adulation is entirely out of kilter with its bitter, peculiar and not altogether pleasant taste.

The cost of saffron is easy to explain. Its orangey strands come from the stigmas of a particular kind of crocus flower. These can only be picked by hand and it takes 70,000 to 80,000 flowers to obtain a single pound of spice. This process has changed little over many centuries. Kashmir in India and Valencia in Spain produce the most highly sought-after saffron in the modern world, but its origins are probably in Arabia: "za'faran" being Arabic for yellow. After the Moorish occupation of Spain in the eighth century, saffron cultivation began in Europe. From the 14th century, it was even grown in England, lending its colour to both meat dishes and sweet foods, especially buns (Cornish saffron cake is a remnant of these) and giving its name to Saffron Walden in Essex.

Saffron is still prized in Essex by those unthinking food-lovers who trot to the spice shelves of Waitrose every time Anthony Worrall-Thompson opens his mouth. It would be interesting to discover how many of them really enjoy its flavour, especially by the time they have mingled it with king prawns, red peppers, peas and garlic, leaving only a musty after-breath of expensive stigmas. At least some of their medieval and ancient ancestors had the excuse of believing in its medicinal qualities. Roger Bacon, a quack expert, claimed that it delayed ageing. The Romans treated it as an aphrodisiac and used it as a perfumed infusion to scent their theatres. In the middle ages, the Salerno doctors announced: "Saffron arouses joy in every breast/ Settles the stomach, gives the liver rest."

But if you don't hold with such nonsense, all that remains to recommend saffron is its colour. There is certainly something magical about dropping threads of saffron into a bowl of hot cream or water and watching orange dye part from the strands and become yellow. In bouillabaisse, in plain pilaff or in a crab tart, the glow of saffron promotes good feeling, though whether the colour is really lovelier than turmeric yellow (a common saffron substitute) is debatable.

Many dishes where it is deemed essential, irreplaceable, pivotal, are actually spoiled by saffron. Risotto alla Milanese is a good example. Delicious though it can be, this sunflower-coloured concoction is much less pleasing than a plain white risotto made with nothing but shallot, chicken stock and good butter. Saffron is too persistent a taste for arborio rice. And its highly praised colour is far less elegant than the dull cream of white risotto.

Saffron is unnecessary in paella, too. The best paella I ever ate was made by a girl from Seville with whom I was sharing rooms. Its whiteness was pure chance: she was too mean to buy saffron; too mean, for that matter, to buy most of the extraneous shellfish, artichokes, snails and so on that clutter more generous paellas. Her ingredients, which she marshalled cautiously, were nothing but chicken, rice, green beans, tomatoes, water, rosemary and olive oil. First, she browned chicken pieces in olive oil. Then she poured in boiling water, a great many skinned chopped tomatoes, salt and rosemary. After it had simmered for some time, she added green beans and rice, covering the pan until all the rice was absorbed. When we ate it, the rice was pink from the tomatoes and softly aromatic from the olive oil. It might have been a mean dish, but it wasn't in the least absurd.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor