When I approach family history writing, like many people I am phased by the enormity of the task, and the question of what will treasured after I am gone. Developing the strategy of thinking about a little moment has been useful. It usually leads to something else, which fleshes out the tiny memory and sets it in time. Let’s begin by looking at a rare birthday where I was able to sit in the sun among the crocuses I have been digging and moving for thirty years.
They say saffron crocus stamens were traded for tin by the Phoenicians three thousand years ago in Cornwall. I can’t comment, except to say that a hard fought for underground metal, which when combined with copper, makes the very valuable material, bronze, as a barter for crocus stamens to make your bread a different colour, seems a strange deal to have made.
Mind you, I liked saffron cake. My mother not being a Cornishwoman didn’t make it, but a rich yellow saffron loaf was ordered once a week from Pearce’s the bakers at Kelly Bray. It was called ‘Best Cake’ as it had more currents than the other saffron cake they made. A slice was eaten spread with butter after bread and jam at tea-time when we got home from school at half past four. Dad had a soft spot for ‘Pearce’s. When his family gave up their business, the Jaspers bakery, the young Master Pearce who I knew as an old man bought the Jasper baking tins. Dad had a memory and a liking for objects and perhaps he enjoyed the connection.
My mile walk home from school in the sixties passed by Skitter House not far from Kelly Bray, on the site of an old Cornish mine. It was half-way up the steep skittery hill before the flat road home. One day, inside that house I watched saffron cake being made. I remember a slate flagged floor and the woman wearing one of those wraparound aprons, sitting, working on her lap. She held a large china bowl between her knees. This was pre fitted kitchens. On the table next to her, was an enamel bowl of warm yellow water (I know what you are thinking, and no it wasn’t). She poured it into her bowl of flour. I stayed and watched while she explained about kneading and how she had soaked the saffron in the water over night. Two things strike me now, one, how did I come to wander into the kitchen of a stranger? … and two, children have long memories, so grandmas, remember, anything you do and say now, may be written about in sixty or more years’ time.
I remember the saffron buns which were made and eaten locally too.
Late in his life, when I was searching for conversation with Dad on a birthday lunch out, I asked him what his birthdays were like as a boy. Did’n ave em’ he said. ‘Nah didn av em’. And that was the end of that. What did happen around the time of his birthday, he later explained, was the ‘Church Anniversary’ trip down to Looe, a fishing village and beach resort on the south coast of Cornwall. Before coach travel, and after horse and cart, in the nineteen twenties a motorised char-a-banc (a bank of chairs) was hired, and they were given saffron buns to eat on the way. The buns would have travelled well on the twelve-mile journey, and one can imagine them having been made the day before by the worthy ladies of the church and handed out from a basket as a filling sweet treat.
I was given this recipe in the picture by another elderly Cornish family friend. I have kept it as you see, but I still haven’t made it myself. I see on the internet that the loaves were baked on sycamore leaves in some parts of the country, which makes me want to try that. I like the amounts on the recipe. None of your measly one pond or fancy butter, it begins with four pounds of flour.
Do you have a carbohydrate-based bread, biscuit, or cake that defines where you come from and is part of your family history? Do let me know.