FOOD: 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.
Photography: Earl Carter
ANNIE SMITHERS is the owner and chef of du Fermier in Trentham, Victoria. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.