To produce one pound of saffron you need to scrape the stigmas of 160,000 crocus flowers. Nitzan Sarig, heading out on a “different journey,” visited a Turkish town where a centuries-old tradition of growing saffron – the most expensive spice in the world – is barely surviving.
It’s a quarter to four in the morning. We wake up to the sound of drumming calling for fasters in Ramadan to hurry and eat at the lunch break. We take advantage of the early wake-up call and join the saffron harvest in Safran bolu, a town in northern Turkey. A sleepy taxi driver has been waiting for us at the old hammam, which has been puffing smoke from its chimneys for two centuries.
The road leading from the old town to the new upper city reveals spectacular views of red-roofed wooden houses; their walls are white-washed, with carved windows and wooden balconies on their facades.
The material wealth of the town during the Ottoman period was largely thanks to it being a center for growing and trading saffron. In the 19th century, about 10 tons of the spice were exported from the region each year and made its way mainly to Europe.
The slopes descend into the valley, with manicured trees and green orchards.
In the center of the settlement are the ancient stone structures of the hammam, the khan, and the mosque. More than 2,000 traditional houses, whose average age is more than 200 years, distinguish Safranbolu and give it the appearance of a traditional Ottoman town, earning it the title of “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO.
A short drive along a river that is planted with walnut trees brings us to the outskirts of the village of Davutobasi. In a small section adjacent to the road, an old woman, a straw basket in her hand, leans against small purple crocus flowers. Slowly, she goes down the bed and plucks.
With careful hands every flower is opened. When she notices us, she straightens up and grumbles at us, “I don’t sell saffron, get out of here!”
The cool reception did not deter us, and we headed to the house of Torran Ozzouzi, a tower of old crocus flowers. Over tea and homemade jams, he says that 10 years ago, the fields were filled with flowers and farmers, but today there are only three saffron towers left in the village. He adds that he believes the decline in the number of growers and the number of areas is due to difficulties in marketing the produce.
We join his wife Sharifah for picking in their lot. The family has one acre of crocus flowers. With our help the harvest is shortened, and an hour later we return to the stone house. A fire sits on a bench outside and separates the crocus stigmas, which look like three long purplish-red hairs, between the short yellow stamens and the purple petals. Although the saffron spice consists only of stigmas, it is customary to leave the pollen.
Adjacent to the stigmas, they earn a few more dollars’ worth of money. With a skill that requires gentleness and precision, the fire burns the stigmas and pollen. A purple pile of useless petals accumulates at her feet.
The next step in production is drying the saffron. Some lay the pieces on cotton cloth and leave them to dry for five to seven days in a room where the air is dry, and every day turn the saffron from side to side. Burning drives a faster and more affordable way – drying in a fire. She smears beeswax in an aluminum mold, sprinkles the saffron on it and places it over the fire. During roasting, she turns the saffron to light on all sides. The melted wax sticks to the saffron and adds a bit more weight to it. Today, she dries the dried crop with the crop of the previous days. From the small field, the Ozzouzi family will produce about half a pound of saffron per year.
The saffron is derived from the flower of the crocus, a member of the Eurasian family, probably originating in or around the West Asian region. Due to its reproduction by tubers (and not by seeds) its distribution throughout history has been controlled by humans. On a fresco on the Greek island of Thera (today Santorini) from 3,500 years ago, there is a depiction of the crocus harvest and the saffron production process. In the seventh century BCE dictionary of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, saffron appears as a beneficial plant in medicine and cosmetics. Ancient world physicians counted its virtues: appetite stimulant, soothing, regulates nervous stomach, antidepressant, regulates menstruation and prevents infertility. Today it is also known that saffron is rich in B vitamins.
Saffron is considered an excellent color, as its name suggests, which means in Arabic “to be yellow.” Buddhist monks’ robes were soaked in a solution of saffron to dye them yellow, as were carpet fibers in Central Asia and Japanese kimono silk threads. Saffron citrus was added to the citadel of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, and women’s faces were anointed with saffron ointment to obtain a golden sheen, according to El Bichri, a 17th-century physician. The modern use of saffron in the perfume industry is no novelty: already in the Song of Songs (Chapter 4, hand verse), saffron is mentioned as a perfume plant.
In the food industry, saffron is also used, usually as a raw spice, to add a spicy, bitter flavor. A handful of “hairs” is all it takes to change and upgrade the taste and color of rice, meat and fish stews. as well as desserts. Soaking saffron in water and cooking it gives it a more delicate taste. In the Gulf states, visitors are greeted with saffron and clove-mixed coffee, and daughters also sip saffron extract.
Saffron’s diverse uses on the one hand and the difficulty of producing and marketing it on the other have always maintained its high price in international trade and have been an incentive to grow it despite the considerable work involved. The Central Asian region has maintained its spice-producing status since ancient times. More than 80 percent of global production is concentrated in Iran, in the Khorassan region, and every year produces 150–180 tons of saffron, of which about 70 percent is exported and the remainder is for self-consumption. Saffron exports add more than $50 million a year to Iran’s coffers, second only to pistachio income.
We continue to the village of Guney, which is about nine kilometers from Dabotubashi. At the height of about 500 meters above sea level, two farmers grow two acres of crocus flowers. Hamlet operates a new tower, just three years in the business, using the knowledge he received from farmers from Dabotubashi and from attending conferences that began to take place in Spernbol.
The saffron sales champion in the shops is actually the “saffron liar,” which is nothing but the bloom of another plant with a similar color. The cardamom inflorescences give people a sense of the real thing at a cost of only $3 per kilogram.
Faculty of Agriculture at Castamono University
Kastamonu, the largest city in the region, has the intention of encouraging the growth of crocuses and the production of saffron in the area and restore its glory.
Mehmet’s crop is in full bloom, and we go back and bend over and help with the work. Mehmet explains that the crocus tuber increases in the second year to three bulbs, so it is the peak year, and the crop is twice as large as the first year. In the third year the crop is small due to soil depletion of minerals. In the fourth year, expropriations are found from the soil, and in their place wheat or other crops are sown for about seven years, and only then can saffron be grown again. “Such periodicity is very problematic,” says Mehmet, “especially when you do not have sufficient replacement land.” He also laments the problems of marketing the saffron to Turkey and other countries. His solution is to sell the crop to the county governor and “break his head.” The saffron, by the way, is dried in the open air. Thus, it is “natural and fairer.”
In the town of Safranbolu itself, the saffron star does not appear to be endangered: family pensions, transportation companies, shops and colorful murals bear the name and portrait of the plant. One of the areas where the saffron is harvested in the area is linked to the marketed product in the locomotive candy industry (Locomotch Remedy). For example, Sprintt specializes in the production of saffron-flavored Lokum. Locomotive saffron is only sold in the town’s magical stores, and business is blessed.
The same day I counted seven saffron towers producing only seven to ten pounds of saffron per year in the Safranbolu area. Their produce is sold at the spice shops in the traditional market, Haresta (Arasta), in the center of ancient Safranbolu. The price for one gram of saffron is about $8.
When I asked where the hundreds of towers and thousands of acres of tons of luxury spice had gone, I found no satisfactory answers in the town. It was only when I arrived in Istanbul, an old international trade center for spices and other goods, that the picture became clear to me.
Ojuzhzuller, Dilor Cadillou’s spice shop in Istanbul’s Egyptian bazaar, has existed for 178 years and seven generations. In its name, which means “cheap,” there is an ironic contrast to the products that the store specializes in: numerous kinds of oils, perfumes, and natural medicines, all of which are expensive. I asked to buy Turkish saffron and adamantly received the answer that there was none. I told Dilor I had just returned from saffron picking at Safranbolu. That I’d seen fresh saffron mountains (exaggerated) and I was surprised to see that it was not sold in the market.
Dilor said he sells about 25 pounds of Iranian saffron every year for about $4 a gram, and about 50 pounds of Spanish saffron for $2 a gram, which he thinks is the lowest quality because during the drying process they add paraffin. He emphasized that in terms of quality, there is no second in the world to saffron from Safranbolu, but that its price, about $8 a gram per trader, makes it worthwhile trading. Not for nothing — they say it’s worth its weight in gold.
The saffron for sale in the shop is actually the “saffron liar,” which is nothing but the blossom of another plant, thorny, and its name is for its. Real saffron is for sale in a container, a few ounces in a small, sealed box, while the “saffron liar” is sold by weight. Its display in the front of the store indicates its popularity. The “saffron liar” gives people a sense of the real thing at only about $3 a pound.
In his memory, Dilor recalls an old man from the Safranbolu area who, a few years ago, wanted to sell about half a pound of saffron on the market. He was offered $100 a pound, and the old man was offended and very angry. “The sellers have finished the farmers. Today I would give two thousand dollars, provided they continue to produce,” he says, his face softening.