The fog hangs low over the golden and red-tinged autumn leaves of the vineyards of Fattoria Poggio Alloro, with the backdrop of San Gimignano’s medieval towers looking like they’re floating out of the clouds. We are heading down past the vegetable patch with its rows of artichokes and cavolo nero, past the wine cellar, past the white, long-legged heirloom Chianina cattle until we reach two fields – seemingly empty until you take a closer look and see the hundreds of tiny lilac-coloured crocus flowers poking out of green tufts very close to the ground.
In the cool of the late October morning, the blooms are closed, their petals rolled up tightly, protecting three stigmas, the precious red threads that are to be dried for saffron. But as the sun comes up, they too open up and it is a race to pick row after row of the flowers quickly, as they are easier to pick when closed, and extracting the stigmas by hand has to be done on the same day. This labour intensive harvest is one of the reasons why saffron is so expensive – the whole process from tiling the soil to planting to harvesting and picking the saffron out of the blossoms is done entirely by hand – and then, of course, you need thousands of flowers each harvest, about 350 flowers produce just one gram of saffron.
Sarah Fioroni, who runs the agriturismo part of her family’s farm, tells me that they began growing saffron at the farm over twenty years ago. The city council of San Gimignano had been researching and retracing the medieval history of the spice in the town and its surrounds. Today, saffron in Italy is most notably grown in Sardegna, Abruzzo and Tuscany, with its centre in San Gimignano. Saffron has been in San Gimignano since the year 1200, grown around the tower city, even on its rooftops, for medicinal and culinary purposes, for textile dyeing and even used as a form of currency, and it was exported to port cities such as Pisa and Genova and beyond. The road that Fattoria Poggio Alloro sits on – not far from the walls of San Gimignano – was known as the road of saffron because of the various farms providing saffron to the city and contributing to its wealth. The Fioroni family have revived that slice of Tuscan history, to add to their traditional products such as heirloom Chianina cattle and Cinta Senese pigs that they raise on the farm too.
San Gimignano’s saffron was awarded the prized DOP (protected destination of origin) status in 2004 and is characterised by dried, whole, crimson-red stigmas of saffron, grown with organic practices. The saffron stigmas must be soaked in liquid – water, broth, or milk, for example, to release the scent, flavour and golden yellow colour of the spice.
Sarah’s 84 year old father, Amico, does most of the hard work cultivating and picking the crocus flowers, but he has a lot of help from the rest of the family, and even friends, when it comes to picking the saffron threads out of the flowers. It is the bit Sarah looks forward to most, “It’s very laborious work, you’re crouched on the ground,” she says of the harvest, “But the beauty of it is after going down early in the morning, everything covered in fog, you harvest them, then you sit together around the table and pick through the flowers.” With the fireplace roaring, everyone grabs a basket of purple flowers and takes a place at the table, carefully picking out the red stigmas and setting them aside, chatting and laughing the whole time. Later the threads are left by the fireplace to dry out, or are placed outside if it’s a sunny day. Once completely dry, the saffron threads are packaged.
They produce just enough saffron to sell at the farm to visitors in small packs of 0.1 grams (enough for four servings) and for the farm’s restaurant to offer some of their signature dishes together with their own homegrown produce, such as an autumnal risotto with pumpkin and saffron, lasagne with ragu and saffron bechamel, and a delicious tagliolini with spring vegetables in a luscious saffron sauce. They even use it to flavour stuffed rabbit and to spice up a wonderful dessert – a shortcrust pastry filled with saffron-infused ricotta and raisins soaked in the farm’s own vin santo. A tradition worth continuing.