Chef Mattias Palmqvist at Stafva gård on Gotland knows a thing or two about this fragrant, aromatic, exotic spice, which happens to be the most expensive in the world. Gotland is famous for its saffron pancakes, but Palmqvist likes to experiment, and among the novelties are julost (Christmas cheese) with saffron and golden yellow saffron honey.

“People often think of saffron either as a spice for lussebullar (the Swedish buns served at Lucia and Christmas) or for fish soup. But actually saffron can lift almost any type of food, it’s more a question about daring. Why not make an ordinary stew a bit luxurious with some saffron?”
Saffron, Palmqvist explains, gets along nicely with fish and seafood, pears and walnuts but can also be added, with great results, to baked goods and ice cream. Palmqvist says a few drops of alcohol or neutral cooking oil will bring up the aroma even more.

“Fat is also a good companion to saffron. Use real butter, no substitutes, when you bake lussebullar. But treat the spice with respect. It’s a bit like chili, begin with a little bit and then add more as you go along.” It takes between 70 000 and 150 000 flowers to make a kilo of saffron and at Stafva gård the harvest this year was about 15 000 flowers, which means around 100 gram of saffron. Each flower is handpicked and a days worth of work usually means a handful of pistils. No wonder saffron is expensive! On the other hand, a little bit goes a long way.

“There’s no other spice like saffron,” Palmqvist continues. “It has a sour character which becomes spicy and then continues to take a warm and floral character. A few strands is enough to get that effect.” In Sweden you can buy both pistils and ground saffron, but Palmqvist prefers the pistils, which have a stronger taste and a deeper color. “When you grind them, part of the natural aromas disappear,” he says. www.stafva.se

Lussekatter (Saffron buns)
300 ml milk
1 g saffron
50 g baker's yeast
150 g sugar
125 g butter
700 g all-purpose flour
1 egg
0.5 teaspoon salt
raisins (for decoration)
Preheat oven to 475F. Crumble the yeast in a big bowl. Melt the butter and add the milk and make sure the mixture is about 37C (100F). Pour the mixture over the yeast, and stir until yeast is dissolved. Then add the sugar, the saffron, the salt and then, a little at a time, the flour. Mix into a smooth dough. Cover the dough with a tea towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Knead the dough and divide it into 25-30 pieces and form buns the shape of lussekatter. Press raisins in. Cover the buns with the towel and let them rise for another 40 minutes. Beat the egg and brush them, and bake for 5-10 minutes. Let cool.

'Lussekatter' - Saffron buns - a must on the plate when Lucia arrives on December 13. On the Swedish tradition of Lucia: http://www.nordstjernan.com/news/traditions/666/