In medieval times saffron was one of the most popular aromatics, loved for the wonderful hue its infusion imparts to foods, as well as for the hard to define saffron flavour – bitter, perfumed, delicate, flowery all at once.
Such was the popularity of saffron that an English saffron growing industry developed, most famously of course in Saffron Walden in Essex , though Stratton in Cornwall was also known for it, and the culture of saffron crocuses for the product survived in Bude until the late 19th century, and in its Essex adopted home until the start of the 20th.
Legend has it that the Phoenicians traded with Cornwall long before the Romans set foot in Britain, buying Cornish tin, and perhaps trading saffron from their Eastern Mediterranean homeland amongst other goods for the metal. It may just be, however, that the Cornish (and Devonians too) kept their affection for the products made with saffron longer than the rest of us.
Saffron cake is really more of a bread, made with yeast, and generally made without eggs. The saffron is traditionally not sieved out of its infusion, to get the very last possible flavour from it. Currents are used to add another taste, often along with mixed peel, and a spice mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, and sometimes allspice is used.
Saffron cake is a subtle product, a simple pleasure that doesn’t want tarting up with additional flavourings and artificially coloured fondant icing (and for purists probably eggs in the dough are out too). Elizabeth David recommended eating a slice with Sauternes or any other good dessert wine, but it has a traditional pairing with clotted cream in its home county (especially at Easter), when small buns made from the same dough and flavourings are consumed.