TODAY, its hard to believe when spices cost so little and we can all enjoy freshly ground black pepper, or the delicious aroma of cinnamon, ginger, cardamon and cloves that these fragrant bits of bark, leaves and seeds were once so costly, so hard to track down and transport, that men were willing to risk their lives crossing oceans and waging war in an attempt to bring them back and build empires with the profits from the resulting spice trade Saffron is still the most expensive spice in the world and if you consider that 85.000 flowers are needed to obtain just one kilo of the stuff it's hardly surprising why. Saffron is the thread-like stamen of a beautiful violet–coloured crocus (crocus sativus) and Spain is blessed with one of the most important production areas of the world. The flat, dry plains of Mesata, Castilla–La Mancha are perfect terrains for probably the best saffron to be found. These bright red, changing to yellow stamens have been prized since ancient times when they were used to perfume bathing water and as a dye. It is said to have anaesthetic properties and has been used as a remedy to sleeplessness and to reduce the effects of a hangover. It's also supposed to be a good aphrodisiac and put you in a happy mood. The Spanish make liberal use of saffron and it is used to flavour and colour many dishes including Paella. It has an unusual, slightly bitter, earthy taste and gives food a faint aroma and an intense yellow colour. It appears in fish soups and stews all along the Mediterranean and works really well with fresh mussels, red mullet and Dover sole. Try grilled chicken with tomato-saffron sauce or lamb with saffron cous-cous. It is also perfect for flavouring risotto's and potato dishes and can liven up mayonnaise and ali-oli. Being expensive, it is obviously best used sparingly, but a little does go a long way. Try to buy fresh, good quality saffron and avoid the powdered variety if at all possible. If you put a little into a pestle and mortar and add a tiny amount of warm stock or water you can pound the saffron to intensify the taste and colour before using.

MUSSEL ANDSAFFRON SOUP
(serves 4)
1 large onion (peeled and chopped)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 large potatoes (peeled and chopped)
50ml pernod
300ml dry white wine
500ml fish stock
100ml cream 1tsp.
Saffron threads
1 bay leaf
1kl fresh mussels, tightly closed and thoroughly scrubbed juice of one lemon seasoning freshly chopped tarragon leaves
Bring the white wine, pernod, fish stock and bay leaf to the boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the clean mussels and cook until they just open. Drain them and keep the cooking liquor.

Pass the cooking liquor through a fine sieve into a clean saucepan and add the onions, garlic, potatoes and saffron. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes, place in a liquidiser and blend to a fine puree and pass trough a fine sieve.

Return the soup to the saucepan, stir in the cream, freshly chopped tarragon, lemon juice and shelled mussels. Season to taste and serve.

FILLETS OF LAMB IN A SPICED-HERB CRUST WITH COUS-COUS AND A

LIGHT RED PEPPER AND CARDAMON SAUCE
(serves 4)
4 lamb fillets
Spicy-herb crust
100g dried breadcrumbs
100g red pepper (finely diced)
1 garlic clove (crushed)
1tbspn. chopped mint
1tbspn. ground coriander and cumin
A pinch of fresh saffron
1 small red chille (finely chopped)
3tbsp olive oil
Seasoning For the light red pepper and cardamom sauce:
1 large red pepper
400ml milk
5–6 cardamom pods (crushed)
300ml olive oil
Juice of half a lemon
Seasoning
For the cous-cous:
160g cous-cous
160ml chicken stock
50g copped red pepper
100g chopped tomatoes
50g chopped shallots
1tbsn. olive oil
1tbsn. fresh coriander
1tbsn. fresh mint
1tspn. ground cumin
Seasoning
Seasoning For the cous cous:
Bring the chicken stock to the boil and remove from the heat. Add the cous-cous and cover.
Leave to cook and swell for 2-3 minutes. Stir in the remaining ingredients and season to taste.
For the light red pepper and cardamom sauce:
Roast the red pepper in a hot oven or place under a hot grill.
Cook until the skin starts to blister and blacken slightly.
Place in a bowl and cover with cling film. Make sure it is air tight. the steam will help to remove the skin. When cold enough to handle peel off the skin and discard the seeds.
Place the peeled peppers in a sauce pan with the milk and crushed cardamom pods and bring slowly to the boil. Remove from the heat and blend the sauce to a puree.

Pass through a fine sieve. Using a hand-held blender, slowly add the oilve oil, lemon juice and season to taste.
To serve:
Season lamb fillets with salt and pepper, heat a little olive oil in a saut pan on top of the stove and fry the lamb fillets for 1 minute on each side.

Remove the fillets from the pan and place them on a baking sheet.
Cover the lamb fillets evenly with the crust and roast in a hot oven for 3-4 minutes until pink in the middle.
Remove the lamb and rest on a warm plate, covered with foil for 2-3 minutes.
Place lamb on a chopping board and carve. Serve the lamb slices on a bed of warm cous cous and spoon the red pepper-cardamom sauce around.

SUQUET DE PIEX
(serves 6)
500g monkfish tail
500g sea bream
700g fresh mussels(cleaned)
400g red mullet
1200ml fish stock
1 Spanish onion(chopped)
4 tomatoes(peeled and chopped)
2 potatoes(peeled and sliced)
100g toasted almonds(ground)
4 garlic cloves
1tbsp. Chopped parsley
200ml olive oil
Pinch of fresh saffron
Clean the fish and cut into even sized pieces. Heat the olive oil in a heavy–bottomed saucepan and add the onions. Cook over a gentle heat to soften and add the garlic, tomatoes, saffron and potatoes. Cover with fish stock and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for 10–15 minutes. Stir in the cleaned fish, mussels and ground almonds. Cook for another 10 minutes until all the mussels have opened and the fish is cooked. Add the chopped parsley and season to taste. Pour into a soup tureen and serve immediately.