For at least half a millennium, Tuscany has been a magnet for tourists, who arrive starry-eyed, in love with art, food, wine, and olive oil, and hoping to share however briefly in life alla italiana. I know I've been drawn there—several times—lured simply by the undeniable beauty and variety of the inestimable Tuscan landscape and its historic villas and gardens. But, with the advent of organic travel, or folks trying to participate in rather than just observe the life of the locale, increasingly visitors seek out the region's rural heart by staying at Tuscany's highly regarded farmhouse hotels, part of the government-supported agriturismo properties located across Italy.
Poggio Alloro is one such farm; a family-run operation that is, as many on the agriturismo circuit are, 100 percent organic and fully integrated. Its proper name is Fattoria ("farm") Poggio Alloro, referring to its agricultural production of wine (some 200,000 bottles and eight different varieties, three white and five red), organic olive oil, cereal crops, and cattle. These all generate organic waste, which is used to produce the compost that sustains the horticultural activities of the Fioroni family, who, in typical Tuscan style, cultivate a large kitchen garden, or orto, to supply the farmhouse kitchen—and fill the stomachs of hungry guests.
Early in the morning, heading southwest toward Poggio Alloro, you leave the monuments, traffic, and tourists that already are crowding the streets of Florence. The autostrada (A1) takes you toward another of Tuscany's historic medieval cities,
the many-towered, hilltop town of San Gimignano. Drop down from the main road into the country lanes that wind through the softly undulating hill country of the region; in the distance the outline of San Gimignano atop its hill points the direction, and with that the red tile rooftop of Poggio Alloro comes into view. On arrival, Sarah Fioroni and her mother and father are waiting with a warm welcome: a chilled glass of their award-winning organic Vernaccia di San Gimignano, a mellow white wine of the region.
The headquarters of the farm is the 250-year-old house, and from its wide, welcoming terrace, San Gimignano is in plain view, a perfect backdrop to Poggio Alloro's pastoral scene of organic vineyards, olive groves, and fields. The farm's historic white Chianina cattle, a rare breed that was once found on every farm in Tuscany, are making their way back to the farm from their distant grazing fields. They are bred for their beef (the foundation of the classic bistecca chianina), and their diet is supplemented by Poggio Alloro's organically raised grain. The farm's operation is a perfect example of integrated organic horticulture and agriculture: a contained system in which each element supports the others. Animals are rotated throughout the fields and gardens; their manure adds organic matter, which is trodden into the soil. After the animals are moved to the next sector, the field is tilled and then sown, harvested, and, when appropriate, left fallow, in a holistic sequence that maintains soil fertility and structure.
In the kitchen, Sarah introduces her guests for the evening to her relatives and parents: her mother, Rosa, and aunt, Giannina, are preparing fresh pasta to be served with a rustic sauce composed simply of fresh tomatoes, basil, and a breathtaking amount of olive oil. I've attended Sarah's cookery classes at Central Market in Austin, Texas, and as she scoops salt by the handful into the pasta water and ladles copious amounts of olive oil into the saucepan to sauté the vegetables, the group oohs and aahs in awe and wonder—we American cooks measure our oil in teaspoons and pinch at the salt. But Sarah is quick to point out that she does not add olive oil to the pasta water. "Why is it necessary?" she asks, incredulous at our strange American take on Tuscan cooking. "If the pasta is fresh enough—even the dried sort—it won't benefit from oil in the water." The takeaway message here is that good olive oil belongs on the pasta to eat it, not in the cooking water!
Sarah's family is originally from the Marche; her father, Amico, with his brothers Umberto and Bernardo, moved to Poggio Alloro in Tuscany in the 1950s, and they were originally sharecroppers, or mezzandri, on the farm. But that postwar decade heralded major change for rural Italian families as the sharecropping system—the mezzandria—under which most of the farm families operated, was dissolved. Prior to that, as in sharecropping systems everywhere, including the United States, the land was owned by (usually) absent landowners or farming corporations, with the laborers allocated a portion on which to grow food for their own subsistence, and for market.
Under this archaic system, many families were kept below the poverty line, and in Italy, the mezzandri were particularly disadvantaged. Postwar land reform arrived in 1951 but had different effects across Italy: In the southern Orcia region of Tuscany, the farmers were given parcels that were too small to support the traditional mixed farming, and so most were combined to accommodate large-scale, chemical-supported, monocultural cereal production.
In the north, the story was different; the mezzandri simply left the land in search of higher-paid jobs in developing urban industrial centers. Their departure left an opening for entrepreneurial spirits and big investors to acquire vacant farms and turn to production of wine. Brunello grapes were already highly regarded, and the robust red wine Brunello di Montalcino was on wine connoisseurs' lists. The increased investment opened the gates to Tuscany becoming recognized as one of the world's leading wine-producing areas. This was quickly followed by artisanal olive oil production and the rise of small fattoria, or production farms, built by families like the Fioronis who were able to capitalize on these markets.
Tuscany has always been a popular tourist destination, and now with epicurian polish added to its unrivalled art and historic foundations, the region seems to be more populated by tourists than by Tuscans. Yet that is what has helped small farm operations like Poggio Alloro to survive, through their own talents and ingenuity and assistance from the state-supported agriturismo program.
By 1971, the Fioroni brothers were able to purchase Poggio Alloro, which at the time consisted of 50 acres of poor stony soil and a tumbledown house. Today, the farm is some 250 acres and the farmhouse has been rebuilt and enlarged in the process. As Amico Fioroni explains, the farm is 100 percent organic, and has been so for many years, and is 90 percent self-sufficient. Production includes their excellent Vernaccia already mentioned, along with some sound red Chianti and, for the coldest months, grappa, a bracing aquavit made from the remains of the wine-making. The family also produces a grassy organic olive oil from the silver-leaved olive trees that shade one field. Amico, who does not speak English but does speak gardening, is able to make non-Italian speakers understand that although operating the farm organically may be more labor-intensive and the production levels slightly lower compared to industrial operations further south, being organic brings a quality to Poggio Alloro's produce that more than compensates, and helps to make it one of the most successful agriturismo destinations in Tuscany.
Guests at Poggio Alloro can be as active in the farm's day-to-day life as they want; depending on the season, they can help with the grape harvest, gather the olives for pressing, or, under Sarah's guidance, take a cooking class to learn the secrets of a true cucina Toscana. And also may get inspired to find ways to create similar, affordable, agriturismo-type destinations at the increasing numbers of small, family-run organic farms across the United States. Anyone who has participated in hands-on vacations will agree that the authentic experiences to be enjoyed create memories that last a lifetime.
Just as the Italian government supports its small farmers in their drive to extend their businesses, perhaps our USDA supremo needs to take a look at supporting our farmers' efforts in this direction as his next agricultural initiative?
Tuscan traditions are evident throughout the farm at Poggio Alloro, one being the way the vines are tied in the vineyard. Instead of nylon twine or another inorganic material, the vines are trained to tuteurs (supports) using twists of willow. It's a traditional Tuscan method that is rarely seen today, and Amico Fioroni explains the process: The young shoots (or suckers) from the willow tree are harvested when still fresh, then kept in water to maintain their flexibility, so they are as supple as string. Plus, the willow is free—a gift of nature—and naturally attractive in the landscape, and obviously it doesn't leave any waste at the end of the cycle.
Good as Gold
Innovation that harks back to tradition keeps Fattoria Poggio Alloro in the public eye; in 1997, the farm added the production of a historic local crop, saffron. During the medieval period and Renaissance, San Gimignano's economy was largely supported by the production of zafferano, a precious—and pricey—commodity. Saffron is made from the dried stigmas of the flowering bulb Crocus sativus, and more than 225,000 hand-picked stigmas are needed to make a single pound, qualifying saffron as the world's most expensive spice. C. sativus grows especially well in the stony fields around San Gimignano, benefiting from the sharp drainage and the cold winters and dry summers of central Tuscany. The crop is harvested by hand in the fall, and it takes a lot of work to produce just one kilogram (less than 3 pounds) of saffron, the best harvest in a good year. Apart from its rarity, the flavor it brings to risotto is its real gift.
Fattoria Poggio Alloro, Via S. Andrea, 23-53037 San Gimignano (SI) Italia, phone 011-39-0577-950-153