By Karin Murray-Bergquist
Saffron is one of the world’s prized spices: rare, costly, and of a distinctive flavour. It is employed for both flavor and color and features in dishes from the Middle East, Spain, and India, where it is gathered from Crocus sativus, a species of vivid purple crocus. And it was no less highly regarded in the Middle Ages – traded throughout Europe and used creatively in many dishes, it became a part of culinary tradition even in places far from where it could be grown.
Today, in Sweden, it gives color and flavor to the buns eaten on the feast day of Sankta Lucia (St. Lucy), but its presence in Scandinavia and the rest of northern Europe goes back much farther than that recipe, which Katarina Ek-Nilsson dates to the seventeenth century, the same period that saw the Lucia legend take greater popularity in Sweden.
To understand the ubiquity of saffron in medieval cuisine it is important
to note the role of spices in general. Humoral theory played a major part in cooking, influencing which spices were used at what times, and this accounts in part for saffron’s popularity. Especially in darker months, its bright color was considered an important counterbalance to the winter chill, with physicians such as the fourteenth-century Arnau de Vilanova recommending the consumption of spices that were categorized as warm during the wintertime.
Both saffron and the crocus from which it comes were well-traveled during the Middle Ages, and as of the fourteenth century, there were saffron crocuses grown in England, the northernmost extension of their range. Saffron Walden, England, may have been the source for the variety of saffron used in Cornwall during the Middle Ages, or, as David Perry speculates, there may have been exchange between the Cornish tin industry and the Continent where saffron could be obtained.
Richard Tellström, professor of food history and culture, dates the first mention of saffron in Sweden to 1327. It was served at a funeral dinner, though in what dish is not specified. Other references to saffron’s use come from early cookbooks, though as is often the case, these sources are likely only a fraction of the recipes that existed, the rest going unrecorded or having been lost.
Medieval Recipes with Saffron
There seems to have been no limit to saffron’s versatility. In perhaps the early precursors to the Lucia bun, its use in bread can be seen in a range of recipes, showing that the use of saffron in bread or dough preparations was not necessarily infrequent in the Middle Ages. The early cookbook Libellus de Arte Coquinaria, written in the vernacular languages of German, Danish, and Icelandic, and likely dating from the twelfth century but with older roots, has great usefulness in displaying what kinds of ingredients would have been both available and desirable to a household of significant means.
Out of 35 recipes, thirteen contain saffron, and of these, seven are breads, pies, or other doughs. The language is sparse and reveals little of the minds behind the recipes, but some of the recipe names, such as “Gilded Milk,” clearly indicate a desire for its color. As Adamson notes, the color of saffron was one of its most highly prized attributes. The editors suggest a southern origin for many of the recipes, including the ones calling for saffron; as the spice was “probably imported,” the recipes may have also been, but recipes such as “Chicken Pie” and “Pancake with a Sausage Filling” could also have been of northern provenance, with the addition of the spice being a further embellishment. The latter recipe especially puts on display the chromatic properties of saffron, asking for it to be mixed with egg yolk to contrast the yellow hues with the rest of the dish.
Records of household or travel expenses reveal it as a similarly integral part of a spice collection at that time, being listed alongside much less expensive spices such as pepper. The geographical origins of these records are widespread, demonstrating its availability even in places where it was less commonly grown. Some of these lists could otherwise be regarded as frugal, but these still incorporated this more valuable spice.
A further possible mention of saffron in bread comes from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Franklin’s Tale recounts its protagonist’s breakfast of “sop in wyn,” a dish that has been previously defined as bread in wine, but which Elizabeth Biebel points out may also refer to “a detailed recipe of fine bread being steeped in wine and almond milk that has been generously laced with saffron, ginger, sugar, cinnamon, cloves and mace.” Biebel’s source, Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books, contains several examples, both “Tayloures” and “Bryndons” incorporating saffron into sweet bread-based recipes.
Saffron’s Enduring Popularity
The popularity of saffron continued beyond the medieval period. In the seventeenth century, The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby features a recipe “To Make an Excellent Cake,” which uses “half a quarter of an ounce” of saffron as a coloring and flavoring agent. Its other ingredients, such as spices and currents, closely resemble not only the Lucia bun, but the variety of saffron cake that is nowadays regarded as a traditional Cornish recipe, but whose roots are vague. Cornwall seems to regard its saffron delicacies as a quaint, but not festive, food. Laura Mason refers to baking with saffron as a “residual tradition.” Notably, unlike the recipe in Digby, the Cornish saffron cake is in fact a yeasted, leavened bread.
The Lucia bun is a delicious variant on what seems to be an ancient tradition, the use in bread of a spice that was rare, symbolically resonant, and unique in its flavor. The variety of uses for saffron in medieval cuisine are as impressive as the geographic range in which they are found. And in winter, the cheering effect of their color in darker months has not waned.
Karin Murray-Bergquist is a graduate student at the University of Iceland, Viking and Medieval Norse Studies.
Adamson, Melitta Weiss. Food in Medieval Times. Greenwood Press, 2004.
Albala, Ken. Cooking in Europe 1250–1650. Greenwood Press, 2006.
Food and Eating in Medieval Europe, edited by Martha Carlin and Joel T. Rosenthal, Bloomsbury, 1998.
Digby, Sir Kenelm. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight, Opened. Philip Lee Warner, 1910.
Ek-Nilsson, Katarina. “Folk Belief and Rituals About Bread in Sweden: Some Interpretations and Comparisons With Today’s Hipster Culture.” Uppsala: Institute for Language and Folklore.
Mason, Laura. Food Culture in Great Britain. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
Perry, David. “Saffron in Early Medieval Sweden.” University of Minnesota Libraries.
Prichep, Deena. “In Sun-Starved Sweden, Bright Yellow Saffron Spices Up Winter.” NPR: The Salt, December 23, 2016
Savage, Jessica. “Winter Spices in the Middle Ages.” The Index of Medieval Art, January 3, 2017.
Westwood, Jennifer, and Simpson, Jacqueline. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends. Penguin, 2006.
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine. Click here to learn more about it.
Top Image: British Library MS Additional 22332 fol. 160