Harvest season in Karabuk’s Safranbolu town is in autumn, when fields are covered with purple flowers. The rare spice is one of the most expensive in the world, with one gramme going for at least $5 in bazaars.
Ismail Yilmaz is a 48-year-old saffron grower in the Karabuk province town of Safranbolu, in the Black Sea region of northern Turkey. He tells TRT World that his family has been growing the prized flowers for 18-20 years.
Saffron is a plant that blooms into a light purple flower. The part of the flower called the stigma, which is dark red in colour, is where the famed spice comes from. The underground part, called the corm, is allowed to regrow in the same field for a maximum of three years in a row and then has to be replanted in a new field, while the original land is used for other plants or left empty for several years to recover, known as crop rotation.
Yilmaz says that he has only been growing the flowers in a larger field for the last five years thanks to the financial backing he received from a company in Izmir that pledged to buy his product for the first three years. Yilmaz and his family have paid off the company and have been growing the plant for their own benefit for the last two years.
He says while saffron may grow elsewhere in Turkey and around the world, the saffron from Safranbolu is of a higher quality with a distinctive smell and strong taste.
According to Karabuk Province Agriculture and Forestry Director, Cetin Ayvalik, saffron production is still not sufficient in Turkey, with production in Safranbolu around 20 kilograms this year. He says that more saffron is imported into the country than is exported, and that encouraging saffron growers would not just provide significant benefits to the economy of the region, but the country as well.
Ayvalik says in Karabuk in the 2000s, saffron only used to be planted in one village at the but in coordination with Turkey’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Directorate was able to increase the area the corms are planted in.
The corm is planted in late summer/early autumn, grown organically in cow dung, with weeds cleaned out by hand and flowers harvested in the autumn.
According to Yilmaz, being a saffron farmer can be profitable if you’re not paying field workers and are working as a family business. The yield from the flowers is very low.
“In order to get one gramme of saffron,” Yilmaz says. “We have to pick 180-200 flowers.” Saffron sells for about $5,250 (30,000 TL) per kilogramme, he adds. It is known as one of the most expensive spices in the world. For all their hard work, Yilmaz and his family produced around 10 kilogrammes last year, and 12 kilogrammes in 2019.
Ayvalik notes that in Turkey, even saffron which is not first grade Safranbolu product, instead originating from other places such as Iran and Kashmir, sell for at least $3.50-$4.38 (20-25 TL) per gramme.
Yilmaz and his family are in the spice business and can sell directly to customers who visit their fields as tourists. He says he recently sent one kilogramme of saffron to Indonesia, and last year the famed spice company McCormick bought from him via a third-party broker.
Ayvalik notes that the sale to Indonesia happens to be the first export the town has made in its history. He adds that the plant is protected by law in Turkey, and that crocus plants, the type to which saffron (Crocus sativus) belongs, are banned from being exported.
An ancient history
According to Ayvalik, saffron has been known in Anatolia since the Hittites (a civilisation formed around 1600 BCE) and was exported during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. Ayvalik tells TRT World that up until the 20th Century, or even in the first quarter of the 20th Century, saffron was cultivated in Anatolia, mainly in Safranbolu, and the town is probably named after the spice.
“Saffron is primarily used in dishes in Turkey, but it has medicinal qualities as well,” Yilmaz says. According to him, the spice can be used to treat anything from macular degeneration, an eye ailment, to depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Yilmaz says the spice regenerates cells and speeds up the metabolism, and also has a calming effect.
Ayvalik says saffron is used for four main purposes: paint, cosmetics, medicine, and food. He notes that food and medicine are the primary uses for the spice, while artificial colours have replaced the expensive plant in modern times.
Safranbolu mayor Elif Kose tells TRT World that the production of saffron in the town almost disappeared in the past because growing and picking the flower is a difficult process. She adds that nowadays, with one big producer and several smaller, younger producers, the flower is making a comeback.
Kose says she believes that soon the plant will get the precious treatment it deserves, with increased production and more tourists visiting the town during the harvest season, from October 15 to November 15.
According to Kose, the town held festivities for the third time during the harvest season this year. She says she wouldn’t exactly call it a full-fledged annual festival yet, but that it is aimed at making the town more popular with tourists, both from Turkey and abroad.
Ayvalik says the festivities, originally planned by official channels, now are being organised by NGOs. The main purpose of these festivities is to promote saffron, increase its production, and inform the public about the unique nature of Safranbolu saffron. He adds that in 2019 during the harvest season in late October-early November, about 70,000-80,000 tourists visited the town.
Anadolu Agency reports that Safranbolu is home to 20 producers who work 3.5 hectares of land. Talking to AA, Ayvalik says: “The ministry and the province are working on increasing the production are of saffron to four hectares, and produce 25 kilogrammes a year.”
Ayvalik tells AA that funds from the province as well as the ministry are spent on improving saffron production, and that their efforts will continue. He adds: “We are also providing producers who are interested in working with saffron with all kinds of technical support as they farm within their own means.”