13 December: Sankta Lucia and Saffron Bread

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk …’

From: ‘A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day’ by John Donne (1572-1631)

Before the calendar reforms of 1752, St Lucia’s day fell on the winter solstice – hence John Donne’s reference to ‘the year’s midnight’. It is one of the very few saints days observed in Scandinavia and amongst the Protestant Scandinavian diaspora. However like so many festivals at the turning points of the year its origins are pre-Christian. The word ‘solstice’ means ‘standing sun’ and indeed before modern astronomy it appeared to ancient people that the sun did, in fact, stand still for a few days. The period between the pagan feasts of ‘Lussinatta’ and ‘Yule’ was a particularly dangerous one – trolls and evil spirits might abroad and children were deemed to be particularly vulnerable.

The aim of the festival must have been to bring symbolic light to this dark time, because the tradition requires that a young girl dressed in white and wearing a crown of lingonberry twigs set with candles, leads a procession of girls bearing burning tapers. Sankta Lucia is now celebrated both publicly and domestically across Scandinavia with processions in towns and churches and private celebrations in homes where the children process in the morning bringing coffee and saffron rolls to their parents. This is the fabulous Carl Larsson's painting of St Lucia's morning in the Larsson household.

There are two kinds of food associated with the Sankta Lucia feast; ‘pepparkakor’ – gingerbread and ‘lussebulle’ - saffron rolls. I’ve been waiting to make saffron bread ever since I started this blog. You can now get it all the year round in Cornwall – every baker has it, although the quality is variable. The Swedish rolls are made with a dough virtually identical to the Cornish ones, although they are often made into an ‘S’ shapes or plaits and Cornish ones are round.

Here's a lovely bit about Sankta Lucia courtesy of YouTube:

There is a lot of discussion about the use of saffron in Cornwall. The romantic view is that it a hangover from the days when Cornish tin was traded with the ancient Phoenicians – tin went one way – saffron came the other. What people tend to forget is that in the Middle Ages saffron was widely used across Britain and indeed was grown at Saffron Walden in Essex.

Whatever the truth of the matter – and we are unlikely ever to be able to prove it one way or the other – saffron is important in Cornwall. Cornish saffron bread – rich with butter, dried fruit and heady with this most expensive of spices, was traditionally made at Christmas time when each roll was given a little 'topknot'. As we're in Advent already I’m going to make it today as a joint celebration of Sankta Lucia and a truly regional speciality.

Sir Kenelm Digby gives us an early recipe for saffron bread in 'The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened' published in 1669, here's my version.

Lussebolle and Saffron Buns

200ml milk
good pinch saffron threads - use more than you think you need
2 eggs
120g melted butter
500g unbleached strong bread flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
60g sugar
2 tsp dried yeast
100g sultanas and peel mixed

Soak the saffron in a couple of tablespoons of the milk for at least 30 minutes.

Add all the ingredients together in a bowl except for the fruit. Mix well and knead until smooth. Add the fruit and knead again until the fruit is spread throughout the mixture. Form into small rolls, spirals and twists then glaze with the yolk of an egg. Leave to rise until doubled in size. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 190c.

If you want these ready in the morning you can leave the rolls overnight in the fridge. They will still rise. Pop down in your nightie and take them out and put the oven on, when it's hot put the rolls in and have for breakfast.

It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

From: 'Winter Night' by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)

PS Spot the Gudrun Sjoden teacloth - a present from my kind friend Jenny


Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

as usual and adorable post... although i'm not sure where I put my nightie?

Anonymous said...

Just recently I had a long discussion with a Swedish friend about the similarity between their saffron-y things and ours!

Liz said...

thanks both - night shirt Dom?

Gerry Snape said...

Liz...A fantastic new profile photo. Some lovely old words and poetry and a wonderful recipe. Thankyou again.

The KitchenMaid said...

Hello Liz, this is such a lovely post. I was hoping (for purely selfish reasons) that you would do something for St Lucy's day. I didn't know about the saffron connection and loved reading about the Cornish link. I think I'll have to hunt some saffron out and make these now!
Thanks too for joining in my linky post a few weeks ago - sorry it's taken so long to get back to you!

Pete Thompson said...

This looks wonderful - might have a go if I'm ever allowed a respite from making bread (which I now have to do every other day). We've been meaning to get some saffron crocusses for the garden so we can harvest our own (might get enough for one batch of bread per year).

Mary Beth said...

Yay!! You and I were synched this year, across the miles! I, too, was enchanted by the thought of making saffron buns. I found several recipes online (Swedish versions) and started a little St. Lucy/Santa Lucia celebration a few years ago as an excuse to try them out. This is the third year and they are a good reason to use my precious stash of saffron.
I am one of a group of six friends who each have a teen or young adult with special needs. We meet about once every other month or so for coffee and support.

On or near December 13th we gather at my home to eat saffron buns, drink coffee and mimosas, and share some comfort and joy.
We had a lovely time this year, grateful to St. Lucy for such a delicious tradition as the shortest day of the year draws near.


Liz Woods said...

Mary Beth, that sounds like such a lovely thing to do - we call mimosa 'Bucks Fizz' here - an essential part of my Christmas morning, and being in the mild south west, mimosa the tree, will be in bloom soon - with the camellias which have started already..