It was around Easter some years ago, that I went to live in Cornwall for a few months to make a TV series, Frances Bissell’s West Country Kitchen.

As we headed west, I could not help but be struck by Cornwall's 'otherness', and the feeling that I was in another country.

The rest of the country was locked down in cold winter weather, but when we arrived in Cornwall, spring had fully sprung.

The first weeks were taken up with the ‘recce’, places to film, people to meet, food to describe and we happily explored, from one end of the county to the other, in cider orchards and bakeries, in dairies, butchers and smokehouses, uncovering Cornwall’s fascinating kitchen.

The Cornish pasty is probably the best known survivor of the era before the days of school and works canteens when substantial portable meals had to be devised.

Having thought that the recipe for the true Cornish pasty was immutable, I was surprised to discover how many variations there are in the fillings.

Meat, potatoes, onions and turnips, and various combinations of these ingredients, are most often referred to, but a Cornishman describing school lunches, tells how some were filled with meat and potatoes, some egg and bacon, some apple, and yet another, rabbit.

I have also come across recipes, which include liver or kidney, and a 1922 recipe from St Ives which includes carrot. In the 1930's a contributor to a collection of traditional English recipes, 'Good Things in England', describes the Cornish pasty with "pastry joined at the side" and the hoggan made without potato joined across the top.

The 'tiddy oggie', however, is a Cornish pasty filled with potatoes.

We loved the bakeries in Cornwall, with their lardy cakes, congress tarts, and saffron cakes. And these are not just quaint treats for tourists. One of the local grocers in Lostwithiel always had saffron and fresh yeast.

Saffron has been a precious spice in our store cupboards since the earliest times. These slender, dry red filaments, almost insignificant in themselves, add a rich colour, fragrance and inimitable flavour to food, qualities which were much prized in mediaeval times throughout Europe.

Ham & High: Mixing up saffron for a cakeMixing up saffron for a cake (Image: Frances Bissell)

Now most of the saffron we buy is probably from La Mancha in Spain. Although we are more accustomed today to use saffron in risottos, paellas and bouillabaisse, there are a number of traditional English recipes using saffron which are still made today, such as saffron cake and saffron buns. Hilary Spurling in Elinor Fettiplaces Receipt Book gives an Elizabethan version in which the butter is melted in sack or sherry.

Hannah Glasses' eighteenth century recipe offers the option of including caraway seeds, but she writes, "I think it rather better without." I do too. On the other hand, I like her suggestion of rosewater, another favourite English ingredient of the time, and one found in some of the many Cornish versions of saffron cake.

Like the Cornish pasty, the hot cross bun now appears in many variations; chocolate chip, anyone? Salt caramel glazed hot cross buns? One might wonder, why bother baking them when they are so ubiquitous? Well, they do make the kitchen smell wonderful and feel very cosy on an early spring day.

Ham & High: A saffron and lemon cake with marzipan icingA saffron and lemon cake with marzipan icing (Image: Frances Bissell)

Perfect, too, for an Easter tea. I have used the recipe I devised for my TV series and re-fashioned it into a saffron hot cross bun. This is a very adaptable recipe. Change the flavours at will. And with the same plain dough used to make the cross, vary that with the occasion; a Christmas tree, a ghoulish mask, a  pumpkin or flower.

I also use saffron to flavour and colour a sponge cake topped with marzipan. The filling is a sweetened ricotta, and a lemon-flavoured water-ice glazes the marzipan, in the style of a cassata alla siciliana, and an excellent addition to the tea table.

Ham & High: The hot cross buns on the tray just before going into the ovenThe hot cross buns on the tray just before going into the oven (Image: Frances Bissell)

Saffron hot-cross buns (Makes 2 dozen)

These buns are best served freshly baked and just warm, but like all bread, the buns freeze well.


Good pinch (about 1/2 teaspoon or 2 g) saffron stamens

225 g butter, lard, or a mixture of the two

675 g strong plain flour, sifted with 1 tablespoon fast acting dried yeast

115 g caster sugar

225 g seedless raisins or sultanas

55 to 85 g mixed candied peel

Approx. 450 ml warm milk

1 to 2 tablespoons rosewater (optional)

For the cross:

50 g plain flour

Water - see recipe


Soak the saffron in 2 to 3 tablespoons very hot water. Rub the fat into the flour, stir in the sugar, fruit and mixed peel.

Make a well in the centre, and pour in the milk, the rosewater, if using it, and the saffron liquid. Stir and combine until the ingredients form the dough, adding more warm milk as necessary.

Knead on a floured work top until smooth, and place in an oiled bowl. Cover with a clean, damp tea towel, and let the dough rise for an hour or so in a draught-free place.

Knock back the dough, expelling all the air and shape into buns. Put these on a greased baking sheet, cover again, and let them rise for a further 30 to 40 minutes.

To make the cross, mix the flour with enough water to make a soft dough, which you pipe onto the buns.

Bake at 180 C/350 F, gas mark 4 in a pre-heated oven for 40 to 50 minutes. The buns can, if you wish, be brushed with an egg and milk glaze before baking.

Ham & High: There is surprising variation on what goes inside a Cornish pasty but Frances uses turnip, onion, potato and beefThere is surprising variation on what goes inside a Cornish pasty but Frances uses turnip, onion, potato and beef (Image: David Johnson)

Cornish pasty  (Makes 2)



225 g plain flour

115 g fat (use a mixture of lard and butter)

Pinch of salt

Water - see recipe


225 g feather or blade steak, cut in small pieces

2 or 3 large potatoes

Onion (optional)

Piece of turnip (swede)


Black pepper


Sift the flour and salt. Rub in the fat, and mix to a pliable consistency with water. Leave to rest in a cool place while preparing the ingredients for the filling.

Take half the pastry, and roll it into a round, about 0.5 cm thick (use a plate as a guide, if you like). Peel and slice the potato finely on to the centre of the round, extending to each side to form a base. Slice the turnip on to this, and then put a good layer of beef over the top, making sure that there is a good piece in each corner. Add a fringe of chopped onion. Season generously.

Dampen around the edge of the top half-circle of pastry with water. Bring bottom centre to top centre to seal firmly, and then enclose along right and left. The finer this sealed edge, the neater will be the crimp. There should now be a neat, fat parcel with no bits poking through. If there are splits or holes, patch them with bits of pastry.

Now do the crimping, from one corner to the other. This is how I was shown in Cornwall; I never really mastered the neatness, so you might want to look online. Make sure your hands are dry. Hold the edge with one hand, and follow on with a firm hold down with the other. Hold and fold alternately and swiftly along to the end. Put the pasty on to a piece of butter paper; slit a hole in the top, to let out the steam. Brush the top with a little milk, and place on a greased baking tray.

Make a second pasty in the same way. Bake in a quick oven at 400 F/200 C, gas mark 6 for 30 minutes, and then reduce the heat to 375 F/190 C, gas mark 5 for another 30 minutes. Use the same ingredients to make 4 tea-time pasties, using a saucer-size circle, or about a dozen miniature pasties.

(c) Frances Bissell 2024. All rights reserved.