Saffron from the hills of Florence
by redaction – Just outside Greve in Chianti, you find Corte di Valle, a firm offering good wine and great hospitality in a nineteenth-century villa and hunting lodge with a cellar, lake, swimming pool and a piece of land that gets your attention.
“That’s where the Florentine zima grows,” says Marco Mazzoni, the owner. He’s someone we can expect a lot from, given the fact that he gave up everything after years in a distinguished white-collar career to devote himself to the land, which he lovingly and skilfully cultivates.
This land gives him a sense of daring above all else, which resulted in him founding the Saffron from the Hills of Florence association in 1996. He was its first chairman and leader of a group of small-scale producers scattered around the Florentine hills.
Guessing our questions – “Who made you do it? Why saffron? – Mazzoni hands over his recent book, Giallo in cucina/A Dash of Yellow, and says that the history of saffron is explained in the introduction: “Once upon a time, at a dinner amongst friends, amidst drinking, card games and chat, Dario told the story of a poor devil who was beaten by his master for having spilt a demijohn of Chianti and who found a handful of soil and something else in his fist when he fell to the ground. As soon as he made it home to his wife, he fainted, dropping what he still had in his hand: a bulb.
They didn’t know what it was, but his wife planted it in the ground and, bulb after bulb, every year as the bulbs multiplied so did their fortune. It was a saffron bulb.”
Even though the magical fairytale has its charm, in a much more down-to-earth way, saffron actually originated in thirteenth-century Florence and brought fortune to many. From the eighteenth century onwards, due to the delicacy of the bulb, production was lost and, with it, the use of an extraordinary product in cooking, pharmacy and dyeing.
So Marco Mazzoni was brave to resume this strand of history at a time when saffron was only grown in Sardinia and Abruzzo in Italy.
He concentrated on quality and artisan production and his gamble paid off. His bulbs are replaced every year.
There’s a focus on the drying process so as not to lose the perfume. It requires a considerable amount of patience given that 120,000 flowers are needed to make one kilo of saffron alone!
Corte di Valle now produces one of the best Zime di Firenze. It has diversified its products to include biscuits and artisan pasta. Mazzoni is also a great communicator who goes from one television programme to another to explain the many uses of this flavoursome ingredient in cooking. He engages the audience with his kind smile, enthusiasm and that courage that he had years ago.
He is a man who respects his land and believes in the short supply chain, hence the announcement of his new challenge: the creation of a true closed-cycle, short supply chain by a group of small companies. Each one sells its products and that of its partners, creating a circuit aimed at always supplying consumers with fresh products guaranteed by those who are not afraid to show their faces and who have made enthusiasm and research into agriculture and cooking their raison d’être.