Living in Turkey provided us with so many cultural and once in a lifetime opportunities like swimming to a castle or watching the oil wrestling matches, and we were itching for another. The Turks love roses, anything with roses in it, and we found out that we live, breathe, and as it turns out, eat roses for a weekend. Off we went!
We were heading to a tiny village outside of Isparta where we had signed up to be part of a team of rose pickers to follow the famous Turkish roses, the Rosa Damascena, through the entire harvest and rose oil process. Driving along Lake Burdur in Spring, we enjoyed the golden glow of the landscapes and watching the storks caring for their young.
How we helped harvest the Damascena Roses
We saw the sign for the factory first and started looking for the house. We pulled in and right away were greeted with the most fragrant red rose bushes on the path to the house. Ringing the bell, we were met by Fedan, who immediately ushered us into her modern house, up the stairs to what looked like had been turned into a proper bed and breakfast, complete with numbered doors.
Only a few minutes later, as we were downstairs sipping a glass of çay, the front door burst open and in the Johanna. Johanna is the Dutch woman who masterminded the rose eco-tours and staying in the Turkish home. Just like the plains of Turkey, she was dusty and moved about a bit frenetically. We were the first visitors in the season, so I think she was a little out of practice. Johanna whipped off her sunglasses and started immediately in on what we were to expect, what we were going to do, and why she was there. We spent the rest of the evening talking to both women and getting to bed early since we would be up before light to pick the roses at the optimum time.
Sure enough, the knock came at the door about 5:30. Hurry up! Get dressed! No time for breakfast. We were piled into a seatless van, with a couple of plastic lawn chairs as our places to sit and off we went in true Turkish fashion. We were a bit shocked when we pulled off the road; we didn’t see any rose fields. What? We drove about two kilometers closer to the lake and well hidden from the road and there as the sun started to peak over the horizon were rows and rows of pink roses.
We weren’t the only people there. In a farm trailer, the pickers who were women from the village, dressed in their cotton billowy pants, scarves, and rubber boots were getting ready to work. We were not as well prepared as they were, and the rubber boots were soon envied by all of us as our expensive hiking books sank immediately into about four inches of muck.
The harvesters worked in pairs with one huge bucket between them, so heavy when filled that it takes both to dump it into the white plastic bags. One of the women greeted us and showed us how to “pinch” the flowering rose from its stem. The rose oil is made from the petals, so we were to leave the still closed buds alone. They would be picked in the next few days.
The four of us got right to work. At first we thought this is not so bad, but let me tell you after about 30 minutes of bending over, occasionally getting pricked by rose thorns, unsticking our feet from the mud, and using arm muscles that were not used to this particular action, we were all soon feeling it. While we were there, we took the opportunity to talk to the women in our broken Turkish and their very limited English. It was made more difficult since our hands were busy with the task at hand, and we asked them about their lives. All of them had families and multiple children at home. They woke up and came to the rose fields, picked for about three hours until the sun just made it unbearable, and the flowers starting wilting, and then they would go home to a full day’s work. They earned about 7 lira per day, which is the equivalent of about $3.35 US. Per day!
We helped empty the big buckets of flowers into the bags, loaded up the farmer’s trailer, and were ready to return to the factory. By this point, the sun was overhead, and we were all tired, sweaty, and hungry. We were ready for Fedan’s breakfast and çay. We went off to breakfast as the hard-working village women went off to care for their families.
How do all those pretty pink petals turn into one of the most expensive oils in the world? To book a similar experience with Johanna go to the Alia website.
Factory Processing into Rose Oil
As we drove back to the factory, we passed cars, trucks, tractors, and even horse carts piled high with rose-filled plastic bags all heading in the same direction to have their roses collected and weighed with the amount being added to their overall payment at the end of the season. Muddy, wet, and sleepy we rolled into Fedan’s.
She made breakfast as we sprayed the mud off our boots and took a well-needed hot shower. It was waiting for us on the table, even utilizing her special rose tableware for us. Our morning talk was consumed by what we had experienced, the lives of the pickers, and Fedan’s thriving hostess business, contributing to the income of her husband’s rose factory in her own way. Fedan’s breakfast consisted of the usual Turkish fixings: bread, cheese, olives, eggs, bread and jam.
We were happily surprised to see the jam we were eating was rose jam, and she had more on the stove-top boiling away. Before we left she gave us each a few jars as a gift as well. Our plan for the day was to visit the factory and learn about the production of rose attar (the extracted oil). We started off on a side exhibit. Here the owners had kept the traditional casks and fire intact just for the purpose of showing how the oil used to be extracted.
To be honest, the machines are newer and probably more efficient now, but the actual process doesn’t seem to have changed that much. In a nutshell, the petals are collected, separated, dried, boiled, and pressed, extracting the oil. After which it was put in a cask and sold. Some of the essence is then turned into other products such as creams and lotions, but there are some folks that like the oil just as it is and are willing to pay the very high price to have it.
First, the harvested petals are dropped off in the front yard of the factory, off-loaded and weighed. After the amount is carefully tallied and recorded, the petals are conveyed to the drying room, and finally put into the boiler. The drying room was one of the most fascinating parts. The petals are emptied and for over 24 hours, dried and constantly moved around to aerate them. The workers throw the petals in the air or rake them over and over.
Have you been to Isparta? Have you ever been on such a harvesting adventure? Tell us about it in the comments below!