Saffron and currant buns
The delicious teatime treat of saffron and currant buns, also known as revel buns, is native to the countryside of Cornwall. And while the mention of saffron may conjure images of Buddhist monks in flowing robes, this saffron snack rose to prominence off the back of less colourful Sunday school outings hosted by the Methodist Church.
Saffron, the ingredient that distinguishes this bun from the plain currant variety favoured by Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, came to the Cornish countryside a long, long time ago. Tin, copper and arsenic where all mined in Cornwall from 2000BC until late in the 20th century. It was thought for many years that traders from the Middle East found their way to England in the Bronze Age, where they traded saffron for tin. This theory has been disproved with archaeological evidence and brought forward to about 350BC. The Romans brought the actual saffron crocus to England and it has been farmed there, on a small scale, ever since.
Saffron has long held the No. 1 ranking in the world of spices that are most expensive by weight. The stamens of the crocus flower are hand harvested and carefully dried. Anyone who has tried will know it is a painstaking labour of love. So imagine my surprise when I was offered a jar of beautifully grown, harvested and dried local saffron, the origins of which were almost as incongruous as the folk of Cornwall having saffron buns as a teatime staple.
Small towns often foster local identities and personalities in a way that is different to homogenised big cities. Trentham is no different. Chrissie, the town’s singular Austrian import, used to be the proprietress of the local hardware store and she is much loved. After finishing there, she joyously turned her hand to growing saffron, a task that she has applied herself to with meticulous Austrian zeal. The end product has been amazing to work with.
For years I had hoarded a recipe clipping for these buns, so at last I had a good excuse to trot it out and make some. After they were removed from the oven and had cooled a little, I slathered them with butter. The crumb was close, the texture was drier than a brioche-style bun, they were packed with fruit and the saffron gave a curiously savoury note to what otherwise would have been sweet buns. They seemed a fitting tribute in a town such as Trentham – where Protestant churches once ran 3–1 to Catholic churches – to an Austrian who bought me a jar of gold. Food, it seems, is so often the illustration of the incongruous nature of life.
Saffron and currant buns
– 1 large pinch saffron threads
– 1 tbsp boiling water
– 7g instant yeast (1 sachet)
– 85g castor sugar
– 150g full cream milk, at blood temperature (37°C)
– 100ml water, at blood temperature
– 600g bread flour
– 7g fine sea salt
– 125g unsalted butter
– 1 egg
– 200g currants
The night before you decide to make the buns, place the saffron in the boiling water and set aside. This helps bring out the maximum flavour and colour from the threads.
Whisk together the dried yeast, sugar and warm milk and water. Place the bread flour in a large, wide mixing bowl. Add the salt. Cut the unsalted butter into small cubes, then rub the butter into the flour mixture until it’s like crumbs.
Add the egg and saffron to the milk mixture and then add to the flour mix. Bring together with a spatula until it forms a shaggy dough. Cover with a tea towel and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Knead the dough until smooth using a lifting and folding action. Flatten it into a rectangle and scatter over the currants, then knead briefly to combine.
Oil the scraped-out mixing bowl, then return the dough to the bowl, cover with cling film or a tea towel and allow to rise until doubled in size (about an hour).
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently fold it onto itself. Divide the dough into 12 pieces, shape each piece into a ball and flatten slightly. Place on a greased baking tray, allowing the buns room to spread.
Preheat the oven to 200ºC (fan-forced).
Allow the buns to prove until doubled in size, about 30 minutes, then bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack and serve with butter or jam or clotted cream. Or all three!
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 25, 2018 as "The chosen buns". Subscribe here.