For most people Saffron is a captivating and expensive spice which conjures up images of mysterious distant lands but for hundreds of years to the Cornish it has been a more homely than exotic ingredient.
It is a story of much conjecture and hot debate as to when saffron first arrived in Cornwall. There are stories of Phoenician and Roman traders from more than 2000 years ago but the more likely answer is a little later than that. In the 14th century Cornwall had a healthy trade in tin with its Spanish neighbours, who in turn had trade routes across the globe, one theory is that saffron first arrived through them.
And this fantastic aromatic spice made its way into our Cornish cooking. Saffron buns and saffron cake are an integral part of any cakey tea (well they always have been in my house anyway!) just as much as clotted cream. And there is even evidence that saffron was cultivated in a few select places in Cornwall for a while – there are records of saffron fields in Launcells near Bude, Fowey, Penryn, Feock and Gerrans. Eat your heart our Saffron Walden!
Growing and harvesting saffron is what makes it the most expensive spice in the world, it is very labour intensive. Saffron is in fact the dried red stigma of the autumn flowering purple Crocus Sativus. Each flower has to be hand picked and the three delicate stigma removed. It takes roughly 200 flowers to produce just 1 gram of saffron. But the result is a versatile spice with a unique flavour.
The name saffron comes from the Arabic word za’faran meaning yellow which gives a clue to its other use as a dye. Saffron also has medicinal properties and known to have a similar narcotic effect to opium. During the 18th and 19th centuries it was used in various opioid preparations, such a laudanum, for pain relief.
Saffron went out of fashion in cooking in England but it continued to remain a firm favourite here in Cornwall. As a child I remember posting saffron cakes to various Cornish relations across the country because here was the only place you could find it.
Recently however it has seen a bit of a revival with chefs both down here and in other parts of the country increasingly putting it on their menus and a small holding in Norfolk has even begun growing the precious crop. So maybe one day saffron will grow again in the county that has taken this delicious spice from ancient Persia into its culture and its heart.
I am not a huge fan of that old habit of just sailing up to a place, sticking a flag in it and calling it whatever you liked – I mean lets face it Aotearoa is a far better name for New Zealand! But when I read that there was an island and a language named after a Cornishman, well, of course I had to find out more!
Our world no longer seems full of intrepid explorers but back in the 18th century they were all the rage. Samuel Wallis, born in Lanteglos by Camelford in 1728, was to become one.
His parents John Wallis and Sarah Barrett had married in the quiet moorland town of St Tudy not far from Bodmin in 1720. The couple had 3 sons and all were born at the family home of Fentonwoon (which means the spring on the downs in Cornish). A small estate, Fentonwoon had been owned by the family since the time of Elizabeth I.
As a minor landowner and therefore a gentleman John Wallis was able to provide the boys with a good education. Samuel like many young men of the era joined the Navy in 1744, no doubt looking for adventure. He fought in the wars Continue reading →
Celia Fiennes was born in 1662 but she it would appear had different ideas about what a woman of her time should be and how they should behave. Celia was not to bound by convention. She never married and at a time when making a journey for its own sake was a new and racy idea Celia became an enthusiastic traveller.
She wrote in her diary that her journeys helped her “to regain [her] health by variety and change of aire and exercise”. It seems that, like myself, she found meaning in her life from seeing, experiencing and finding out about different people and places.
This of course was a time when travel was for most people an arduous necessity that took planning and resolve. Just as a fun fact, the first stage-coaches didn’t appear in Cornwall until 1790, so nearly one hundred years after Celia’s travels, and the 100 mile journey from Exeter to Falmouth took 2 days. (About the same time as the A30 on an August Bank Holiday weekend then.)
Anyway Celia was her own boss with her own agenda and she did it all side-saddle in a frock. She completed her “Great Journey to Newcastle and Cornwall” in 1698 on a horse accompanied by just one or sometimes two servants. And of course as you might have guessed apart from my admiration for her as an independently minded woman it is her descriptions of Cornwall that interest me.
After a rather dramatic hour-long crossing of the River Tamar from Devon (there was no bridge at Saltash in those days) during which she catches a cold and wishes she had never started, one of the first places that Celia visited was Looe. Here she describes crossing “a little arme of the sea on a bridge of 14 arches”.
That bridge no longer exists but the illustration above from 1840 gives us a good idea of what she might have seen. She also writes that Looe is a “pretty bigg seaport” with “a great many little houses all of stone”. I wonder what she would make of it now?
A little further down the coast Celia and her faithful four-legged companion made another river crossing. This time at Fowey where she marvelled at the colour of the sea. “As green as I ever saw” she says.
But perhaps my favourite episode in her diary is the entry of the night that she spent in St Austell. It is easy to forget that Celia was what you might have called a ‘well-breed’ lady, she had been brought up in certain circumstances and here she was travelling into darkest rural Cornwall without an escort. She was staying (when not at the homes of friends) in whatever accommodation was available when the sun set and she couldn’t go any further that day. So on this particular evening Celia finds herself in some kind of lodging in St Austell which she describes as “barn-like” and she gives us a delightful look at the Cornish people around her.
After telling us about an excellent “apple pye” with which she partook of “clouted creame” (clotted cream) available only in these parts she goes on to describe her company.
I was much pleased with my supper tho’ not with the custome of the county, which is a universall smoaking both men and women and children have all their pipes of tobacco in their mouths and soe sit round the fire smoaking, which was not delightful to me . . . I must say they are as comely sort of women as I have seen any where tho’ in ordinary dress, good black eyes and very neate.
I love this. Of course Cornish women are “comely”! It reminds me also of later photographs of elderly men and women with a clay-pipes that seem to be as much as part of them as the nose of their face. I imagine her as being as much a curiosity to the locals as they were to her. I can see them all gathered about the fire, peering as her through their pipe smoke, mumbling . . . pretty much how I felt a few weeks ago when I visited the Bucket Of Blood Inn in Phillack but that’s another story.
As Celia rides out St Austell the next morning she is amazed by the industry in the area, the numerous mines and the “violent heat and fierce flames” coming from the furnaces. These were hard times when a lucky few were making their fortunes on the backs of the many. She comments again on the force of the industry when she passes through Redruth describing it as “very bleake”.
But Celia’s horse carried her on, right to the end of the county, her diary ends with a description of her clambering about on the rocks at Lands End. And as she says her “horses legs could not carry me through the deep and so return’d to Pensands [Penzance]” and there “the Mount . . . looked very fine in the broad day the sun shining on the rocke in the sea”.
Celia continued her travels intermittently throughout her life until at least 1712 and took her through most of England. She comments that because of the various wars with England’s neighbours she is too nervous to travel to the continent alone but I have a feeling if she had been able she would have ridden her horse side-saddle for as far as its legs would have taken her.
Her diaries have been published and are actually an interesting read I promise! Link here.