Saffron harvest in Turkey: from purple flowers to expensive spices


Status: 10/30/2021 3:21 p.m.

In October and November, the fields around Safranbolu in northwestern Turkey shine in a delicate purple. One of the most expensive spices is extracted from the blooming crocuses: saffron. 100 grams cost several hundred euros.

A report by Karin Senz, ARD-Studio Istanbul

The delicate purple fields of Safranbolu glow under the autumn sun. Fatma Erdeniz and other pickers spread out between the long earth dams early in the morning. She bends over the flowers in her floral trousers and orange sweater. “We practically snap them off with our fingernails,” she says. “It’s not difficult. You just have to know how to do it.”

Karin Senz
ARD-Studio Istanbul

Saffron crocus needs a temperature of around eight degrees at night. Then it blooms and Fatma can reap it. One purple flower after the other finds its way into your little wicker basket. The 52-year-old’s fingers are all yellow. “It comes from the flower, it changes the color of the fingers. But it goes off again with soap or detergent,” she says. “We like to do it. Only our back hurts because we are always bent over. We have to stretch every now and then.”

Picking is only possible by hand

The pickers all come from the area, says Ismail Yilmaz. He owns the fields. “You can’t pick the flowers by machine,” he says. “I looked at some machines on the Internet. The green leaves would also be picked. But they feed the onions. We only use machines when we have to get them out of the ground.”

That works in a similar way to the potato harvest, explains the 50-year-old. His hands are playing with one of the flowers. When it falls to the ground, he quickly picks it up again. “We love this flower. In addition, this product is very valuable to us,” he says. “It has an economic and an ideal value for us. That is our passion. We cherish flowers like our children.”

“We practically snap off the blossoms with our fingernails,” says picker Fatma Erdeniz. “That’s not hard.”

Image: Karin Senz

Five euros for one gram of saffron

It is mainly about the three red stamps. They make up the real saffron. And the ends of it are the most precious, he says, tapping them gently with his fingers. “For one gram of saffron you need at least 100 flowers. The price for one gram is 50 lira, or around five euros,” Ismail Yilmaz calculates.

It is the largest of the 50 or so saffron producers in the region. He started doing it in 2015, without a clue. Then a company approached him that wanted to sell his saffron worldwide. She worked with professors who gave him tips: “They told me what I was doing wrong, that the onion doesn’t need a lot of water. This would only make the soil hard and it would be more difficult to pick the flowers. In addition, the quality would decrease” he reports. “Then we started to plant the crocuses with dried cow dung as fertilizer on small earth embankments. The quality improved quickly. The saffron was more aromatic. From then on, everyone in Safranbolu planted this way.”

Most of the harvest is exported

80 percent of his harvest now goes abroad, mainly to Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Iran is the best known saffron producer. But the quality is better here, says Yilmaz proudly, while again – this time carefully – playing with the flower.

Again and again the pickers empty their wicker baskets into larger black plastic baskets next to him. They go to local families. In the evening they would sit together and separate the red pistils, the yellow stamens and the purple petals, explains the company boss. “A family of 3 to 4 people can only process up to two kilos of flowers in one evening. We pay them for that. So we have personnel costs. That is why saffron is expensive.”

In his small hall next to the fields, he sells all sorts of things made from saffron or saffron petals or from the stamens: massage oil, creams, the typical Turkish Kologna scented water or saffron noodles.

80 percent of Ismail Yilmaz’s harvest goes abroad.

Image: Karin Senz

“We put it in almost everywhere”

Fatma Erdeniz has worked her way through the next row of saffron crocuses. She also loves the healthy spice. She enthuses: “I like the jam from it. But you can also add saffron to honey or to rice and pasta, like Börek. We put it in almost anywhere.” Even if she has to deal with saffron practically all day during the harvest time in October and November, she is still far from having enough of it.

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