Despite being the world's most expensive spice, saffron is widely used in Swedish food. It features heavily around Christmas time in saffransbullar (saffron buns), but it is also used in a number of other sweet and savoury dishes. It is used both because of its bright yellow colour and its distinctive flavour.

Where does it grow?

A field of saffron

Saffron comes from the dried stigmas of a variety of crocus (Crocus sativus), which are then dried. Iran is the world's biggest supplier, but other countries producing significant amounts of saffron include Spain, Italy, Greece, India and Morocco.

The plant grows to a height of about 30 cm (1 ft) or more, whilst the flowers are quite a bit shorter. The intense orange-coloured three-branched stigma (the female flower parts) it produces are 25-30 mm (1-1¼ in) long.

Why is it so expensive?

Saffron is nearly as expensive as gold. The reason it is so expensive is simple: about 200,000 crocus flowers are required to produce 1 kg (2.2 lb) of saffron. Harvesting the stigma is tedious and can only be done by hand first thing in the morning before it gets too hot. Fortunately, you don't need much saffron, normally less than half a gram.

Black Death

Saffron was widely used in the UK during the 14th century because it was regarded as a way of preventing the Black Death plague.

Saffron Walden

One of the biggest growers in those days was Saffron Walden in the county of Essex in southern England. Because there were several other Waldens in Essex, the town was given the prefix Saffron to distinguish it from the other Waldens. The town still has a crocus flower on its coat of arms.

Can you grow your own?

Yes, provided you live in a reasonably warm country you can grow your own, but you need an area of about 2 football (soccer) pitches to produce 1 kg of saffron! More realistically you would need about 100 corms (they must be Crocus sativus, not ordinary crocuses) to give you sufficient saffron for about a dozen meals - still quite a bit of land!

In the UK there is currently only one commercial grower of saffron (in north Wales) so most saffron purchased in supermarkets is imported. UK saffron is mellower and richer than saffron grown in hotter countries.

Buying saffron

Saffron threads

Most large supermarkets stock saffron. It is usually sold in 0.4 g or 0.5 g packets. In the UK the packets normally contain saffron threads which need to be crushed before use. Each packet generally costs between about £4 ($7).

Buying saffron in Sweden

Saffron powder bought in Sweden

If you are visiting Sweden it is worth bringing some saffran (saffron) back with you, as it is much cheaper there because the turnover is much greater. Saffron is normally sold ready ground in Sweden. Because saffron is so expensive and it is easy to steal, you will need to ask for it at the supermarket checkout as you will not normally find it on display.

Only buy saffron from reputable suppliers; there have been problems with counterfeit packets with cheaper ingredients and dye added. For this reason, some Swedish cooks prefer to buy saffron threads, even though they are less convenient, because then they know they are getting genuine saffron.

How to use it

Saffron threads crushed with a little salt or sugar and vodka

Saffron threads need to be mixed with a little salt or sugar and lightly crushed before use. Pouring a little vodka over the saffron and leaving it for 30 minutes will help to draw out the flavour. Alternatively, warm liquid will help the flavour to develop, so for this reason saffron powder is often heated with the milk when making a dough.

Saffransbullar (Saffron buns)

Saffron buns on a plate during Advent

Saffransbullar (saffron buns), also called lussekatter or lussebullar (Lucia saffron buns), isthe most popular use of saffron in Sweden. Although they are intended to be eaten on luciadagen (St Lucia Day), in practice they are on sale throughout December and most Swedes are excited to see their arrival in bakeries.

If you are buying a lussekatter in Sweden try and avoid very cheap buns because some bakers cut down on the amount of saffron and add yellow food colouring instead. Our recipe for saffron buns uses readily available "instant" dried yeast and has some step-by-step photos to help. More…

There are also popular variations on lussekatter including saffron buns with almond paste and saffron buns with white chocolate and dried cranberries.

Saffron and white chocolate truffles

Saffron goes very well with white chocolate and so saffrans- och vitchokladtryffel (saffron and white chocolate truffles) are very popular around Christmas time, although I think they are rather nice at any time of year. I particularly like to serve them with fresh figs or some tangy physalis to balance the sweetness of the truffles. They are easy to make and can be frozen, although they will probably need a new coating of icing sugar (confectioner's sugar) before serving. Take me to the recipe >>>

Other uses of saffron in Sweden

Other uses for saffron in Sweden include:

• Saffranssås (saffron sauce made with crème fraîche, stock and chopped shallots which is served with fried fish or chicken),
• Saffransbröd (saffron bread, often shaped into a wreath),
• Saffranspuddingar (saffron rice pudding, usually served with raspberry jam),
• Saffransmajonnäs (saffron mayonnaise which goes well with strong-flavoured crab, prawns or fried herring).

John Duxbury

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