James Wong's - Homegrown Revolution


Posted on: November 20th, 2012 by James Wong 4 Comments

Mega-expensive, incredibly exotic & yet super easy-to-grow. Here’s my guide to growing, cooking & eating this surprisingly traditional British crop, with giggly mood-boosting properties to boot! Saffron martini anyone?


The world’s most expensive spice, worth literally its weight in gold, the fragrant red threads of saffron add a vibrant yellow colour & rich, creamy flavour (somewhere between eggs & golden syrup) to all sorts of exotic dishes – from paella to curries. But despite being associated with the far flung cuisines for the Middle East, India & Spain, the big surprise is that saffron is actually a quintessentially British ingredient and was grown on a massive commercial scale on our blustery islands for nearly a thousand years.

In fact, as the picture above shows you – it is actually a very close relative of the regular ‘park lawn’ crocus & is just as easy to grow. Those red threads that hang down from the centre are the spice, ready for use straight off the plant. Add to that the fact that it is packed with mood-boosting, mildly psychoactive chemicals that (at the right dosage) will give you a mild, giggly ‘lift’ for up to half an hour & you will see why I think this is one spice everyone should be growing.


Think you’d need a greenhouse to grow saffron in the UK? Well think again! It was widely cultivated outdoors in Britain for hundreds of years, with massive plantations giving places like Saffron Walden in Essex & Saffron Hill in East London their names. Bare in mind this included a period when our climate was far colder (e.g. the Thames froze solid every winter), so if the Elizabethan’s could grow these, so can you! In fact, just in case you still had your doubts, there is still one commercial plantation growing saffron in Britain, at high altitude in North Wales. Check out www.britishsaffron.co.uk

Unlike most annual crops saffron can produce unbroken harvest for up to 15 years in a row if you follow a few simple rules, offering up pretty purple flowers, gorgeous fragrance and harvest literally worth its weight in gold for the 15 minutes it takes to plant them. This makes them, for me, the one crop that offers up maximum reward for minimum work.

All you need is a nice sunny site with really well drained soil, ideally with a neutral pH – the warmer and sunnier the better. I like to dig in plenty of grit or biochar (ground up charcoal) into the ground before planting to ensure a nice quick draining mix that will warm up quicker in summer and prevent these Mediterrenean plants from having their roots sit in cold, wet soil over the winter.

Plant the corms (available from Suttons Seeds in late summer) as soon as they arrive a good 10-15cm deep & water in well. You can even grow ’em in a wide brimmed pot of gritty, pH neutral compost if you are gardening in an area with very acid soil, as long as it is at least 25cm-30cm deep & leave ’em to get on with it. Within 8 weeks you will be rewarded with you first flush of saffron blooms in October or November with flowers carrying on to pop up over roughly a 2 week period.

For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Saffron check out pg 172-173 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!


Although the plants themselves are very easy to grow, there are a few little tricks to getting them to flower well every year. These are the top tips I use to keep ’em producing even in truly terrible summers like this year.

1) Plant ’em deep – Between 10cm-15cm below ground level.

2) Pick mature corms – Many suppliers will sell you very small corms that won’t reach flowering size for 2-3 years. Side step the wait by buying mature corms, that should flower just 6-8 weeks after planting. I have grown mine for Suttons Seeds 3 years on the trot without fail.

3) Don’t trim their leaves – The plants produce loads of grass-like leaves between October & April each year. As these die down there is a temptation to trim them off to neaten up the plant. However this will weaken the plant and reduce your chances of flowers.

4) Add tomato fertiliser – Spoil your little plants with a high potash feed like a liquid tomato or rose feed just after they finish flowering and again in March to help bulk ’em up.

5) Cloche protection – Dormant saffron corms are triggered into producing flowers by summer warmth – ideally a 6 week period at 21C. Although this is not a problem in the average UK summer, in particularly terrible ones (like this year) it is worth laying a couple of cloches over the beds between July and August to keep them nice and warm. Other things you can do are to ensure the sunniest site possible, use a dark coloured gravel as a mulch or even try growing them in dark coloured pots (dark colours absorb the sun’s heat a little better).


All you need to do is pluck the tiny red threads from the centre of the blossoms with a tweezers. They are ready to use straight away, or you can dry them for later use by simply sandwiching them between two sheets of kitchen towel and leaving them on a windowsill for 2-3 days. Then just pop ’em in a small glass jar and where they’ll store in a cool dry place for over a year.

While most of us nowadays think of saffron as a ingredient in paellas and curries, it is actually a quintessentially British ingredient long used in custards, hot cross buns, marzipans, biscuits and cakes – adding a rich buttery warmth and golden hue.


I prefer to make the most out of its mood-boosting, mildly psychoactive properties by extracting and concentrating them in gin to make the most giggle-inducing martini known to man.


To get started all you need to do is pinch the orangey red threads from the centre of the flowers. You DON”T need to pick the flowers off to do this like I did here either. By plucking them out with quick nip of the tweezers from the centre of each bloom, your display stays intact and you still get  yours hands on the good stuff. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it?


Pop a good teaspoonful of threads into a small (330ml) bottle of gin with a couple of strips of lemon zest and 1/2 a vanilla pod, screw on the top and leave it to sit in a cool dark place to ‘let the yellow mellow’ for 5 days to a week, shaking occasionally.


Saffron gin

Ta dah! Your spiced saffron gin is now ready. It works amazingly in cocktails, poured over Christmas pudding or even used to make a sneaky spiked custard from autumnal puddings.


To mix your martini simply slosh a shot of your saffron gin in a cocktail shaker with a shot of Martini bianco , a tablespoon of golden syrup, a twist of lemon juice and a big old handful of ice. Shake until the shaker is frosted, leave to stand for 2 minutes for the flavours to mingle and serve.


For full instructions on how to grow, cook and eat Saffron check out pg 172-173 of my new book Homegrown Revolution!

4 Responses

  1. Shelby says:

    hello james, is it possible to substitute gin with other forms of alcohol i.e., vodka / tequila etc?

  2. Hi James,

    What a fantastic idea. I have spent the last 10 years growing all kinds of stuff in the garden, and my poor wife is bored stiff of the gluts of ‘war time’ veg.
    I can’t wait to get stuck into your new book in the Spring.

  3. Candy says:

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    like to shoot you an e-mail. I’ve got some recommendations for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it develop over time.

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