Friday, 21 December 2007

The Phoenicians and Vikings As Globalization Pioneers: The Story of Saffron

Globalization is a recent term, but it’s clear that that the world has been interconnected by trade for a long time. This came home to me this week when my friend Carol Greene sent me this great picture of the Cornish saffron bread she and her husband make at Christmas a couple of days after I posted my story about the Swedish saffron buns we make for St. Lucia’s Day, December 13.

"This is the batch Frank made this morning. He has already given away (or we have eaten) all of the other two batches. This is almost the essence of Christmas for us, and the connection is my Cornish heritage,” she wrote on Monday. “I used to enjoy thinking that saffron got to Cornwall from a ship of the Spanish Armada which was wrecked, but I have been disabused of this notion. The connection apparently goes back much earlier to the Phoenicians who traded it when they came to Cornwall for its tin. 'The Phoenicians dedicated saffron cakes to the goddess, Astarte, a mystique that may well have appealed to the Cornish.' 'Saffron refreshes the spirits, and is good against fainting fits and the palpitation of the heart'" she quotes from Saffron and Currants: A Cornish Heritage Cookbook by Susan Pellowe.

Just how saffron became a staple in festive Scandinavian bakery is story not quite as old. The Normans (“north men”) spent a lot of time between the 9th and 12 centuries roaming the seas. Some were pirates: the word “Viking” comes from the Norse “vik” or bay so a Viking was one who lurks there. Others were traders and colonists, going west into what is now Russia, east across the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and North America, and south as far as the Mediterranean. Sicily was ruled by Vikings for more than 100 years, whence the importation of the virgin martyr St. Lucia to become a symbol of light on the darkest days of the year (her name day at the time was about the solstice.) Saffron was imported during the same great trading period, and the lovely yellow it gives to baked goods probably reminded people of the sun.


Martin Langeland said...

Oh that bread looks good!
I'm glad you point out that the Vikings were only sometimes pirates. With the spur of primogeniture driving them into the world to make their own bread they were traders and mercenaries at least as often as outright pirates. It really was more a matter of circumstance which facet was on display. One of their great achievements is the lapstrake style of wooden boat construction. As I once made the copper rivets used in that sort of work, I wrote a short history of the nail which prominently features the Vikings. It is available on line at Tales from the Nailery. With great good wishes for your holidays, I hope you will find a moment to read it and therein a few chuckles.

Mary Soderstrom said...

Thanks for the reference: I'd noticed it on your blog but had read it. I think I'll print it out (if you don't mind) and put it under the tree for my husband who loves tools and woodoworking and such like.

Best wishes for the holiday season


Martin Langeland said...

By all means.

And happy Solstice to all!