Notes from the North Country

by Lon and Lynn Emerick

Can you solve this culinary quiz?

• You won’t find this edible substance on the open shelves of local grocery stores.
• You must ask for it at the service counter and then pay immediately, not at the checkout aisles.
• It is expensive: In fact, it’s so valuable that a pound would cost more than $4,000.
• Romans used the substance to curdle cheese and dye clothing.
• One small duchy in Britain reportedly consumes twenty percent of the annual crop.
• There is a U.P. connection.

So, what is it? The correct answer is: saffron. Saffron is a deep orange, aromatic and pungent spice used to color and flavor food—historically it was used as a dye and for medicinal purposes. It comes from the dried stamens of a crocus flower (crocus sativus), which only grows well in the Mediterranean region. It takes 4,300 blossoms to produce an ounce of the spice. And all the work is done by hand.
Cornish miners brought saffron with them when they immigrated to the Upper Peninsula in the mid-1800s. The spice has been an important part of Cornish culture since it was introduced by Phoenician mariners as barter for Cornwall’s abundant tin. The miners just had to have the tasty yellow buns and bread—even if they were costly. There is a Cornish expression that my maternal grandmother repeated often: “As dear as saffron.”
That’s probably why Grandmother insisted that non-Cornish guests sample a small slice of saffron cake before she served them an entire portion. Some people are repelled by the flavor of the spice—the most candid guests (including my non-Cornish father and my Scots-Irish co-author) say it tastes medicinal—like iodine.
I forgot the family taste-test and offered some fresh saffron buns to participants on a winter hike. On the return trek, I noticed small golden flakes in the snow where a shy hiker had crumbled and discarded his slice. I smiled as Grandmother’s image flashed into my memory.
One doesn’t have to be Cornish to enjoy a saffron bun—but it helps. Yet men must be careful, according to Jean Ellis, a Cornish Bard who resides in Eagle Harbor.
“When saffron is combined with testosterone, you never know what may happen,” she insists.
By the way, St. Piran’s Feast Day is March 5. It is a good time to eat a pasty or a saffron bun in memory of Cornwall’s patron saint. You can find good saffron buns and bread at several places in the Upper Peninsula. As you might expect, the most memorable locations are in the Copper Country—Toni’s Country Kitchen and Bakery in Laurium, Slim’s Café in Mohawk, and a real Cornish establishment, Jack and Carol Treganowan’s Eagle River Country Store (look here for the flag of Cornwall, a white cross on a black field). Or, if you’re in Marquette near St. Piran’s Day, you may be able to score saffron buns at the new Marquette Baking Company on Baraga Avenue.
For extra credit, ask a person of Cornish ancestry to share some ’eavy cake with you.
See if you can find a reference to saffron in the Bible. Hint: look in the first ten chapters of the Song of Solomon.

— Lon and Lynn Emerick

Editor’s Note: Comments are welcome by writing MM or e-mailing marquettemonthly@marquettemonthly.org
Lon and Lynn Emerick’s Upper Peninsula books: The Superior Peninsula, Going Back to Central, Lumberjack—Inside an Era, Sharing the Journey, You Wouldn’t Like it Here and You STILL Wouldn’t Like it Here are available at area book and gift stores or by visiting their Web site at www.northcountrypublishing.com

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