I was hooked at my first meal at Poggio Alloro. The family-run agriturismo and organic farm sits on a hill looking directly at the town of San Gimignano. It is one of the most stunning views of Tuscany, one of those views that you only dream about or see in postcards and wonder if there are really places that exist that look like that. The Chianina cows graze on the hill side, the vineyards follow the rolling hills surrounding the property and the vegetable patch is bursting with whatever happens to be in season from kale to tomatoes. But that’s just scraping the surface of what is there on offer.
My favourite thing is a meal here. The long wooden table, as old as the generations of the family, the huge open fire place big enough to sit in, and the seasonal, farm fresh dishes that come flowing, like the wine, one after another – it’s hard to find anything more satisfying than having lunch here with friends for hours on a bright autumn day.
We returned again and again to Poggio Alloro, taking friends, family and stealing away weekends for ourselves there. Every month was a different experience at the farm, and we came to feel like part of the extended Fioroni family, always welcomed with open arms. Back in December 2010, we spent a weekend helping make salami, sausages and proscuitto from their beautiful pigs. We often took friends there as well to experience a real bistecca fiorentina. Two of our very good friends even returned to have their wedding there. Even the simple things like a freshly made bruschetta al pomodoro from the summer’s tomatoes (still warm from the sun), tastes different when you eat straight at the farm.
A few years ago to this day, we had lunch with friends at Poggio Alloro for my birthday. To get our appetite going, Sarah and her father, Amico, led us down to the saffron field. Armed with baskets, we picked the last of the crocus flowers for the season. Small, beautiful purple flowers with three bright red stigmas each. I couldn’t believe how much work – a speedy and labour intensive harvest where flowers picked in the morning need to have their stigmas removed before they wilt – would have to go in to producing even just one gram of dried saffron, which requires 350 flowers. No wonder it’s considered one of the world’s most expensive foods. Lucky that a little goes a long way.
Saffron was introduced to Italy in the Middle Ages, a popular spice not only for its delicate flavour but also its beautiful golden colour. San Gimignano is Tuscany’s saffron capital – in the 1200s it was treated as currency in this area and contributed to the city’s wealth. Saffron from San Gimignano, which was awarded DOP (denominazione di origine protetta) certification in 2005, is cultivated using natural methods and sold in whole, crimson-red threads rather than powder.
During that long birthday lunch, I will never forget the first course that was made for us, a creamy, golden-coloured pumpkin and saffron risotto; a simple dish, made with the farm’s best seasonal produce. Seeing as it’s my birthday and I can imagine that the saffron harvest is happening as I write this, I thought there’d be nothing better than remaking this dish, for nostalgia’s sake.
Here’s a page out of Sarah Fioroni’s cook book, A Family Farm in Tuscany: Recipes and stories from Fattoria Poggio Alloro, where the farm’s activities and favourite dishes are documented month by month, along with family anecdotes and the stories of the history and traditions of the area. I spent a wonderful year going back and forth from Florence to San Gimignano once a month to photograph (and eat) many of the farm’s seasonal dishes. Catch a glimpse here, or better yet, visit the place for yourselves.
Risotto con Zucca Gialla e Zafferano
Saffron and pumpkin risotto
Note: Although not specified, I diced the pumpkin into 1cm cubes as that’s how I remembered having this dish at Poggio Alloro. Zucca Gialla is generally speaking any pumpkin with an orange/yellow skin; you could also use butternut squash/pumpkin for this. I’ve used metric measurements, as always, but the book has both metric and cups.
Serves about 8 as a first course
- 60 ml extra virgin olive oil
- 75 gr diced red onion
- 450 g pumpkin, peeled and diced
- sea salt and black pepper to taste
- a sprig of fresh rosemary, chopped
- 1 lt hot water
- 1 lt vegetable broth
- 760 gr Arborio rice
- ½ tsp (0.1 gr) saffron
- 15 gr cold unsalted butter
- Parmesan cheese (optional)
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is transparent, about 5 minutes. Add the pumpkin, season with salt and pepper and cook for 20 minutes. If pumpkin starts to stick to the pot, add some of the hot water. Add the rosemary and continue cooking until the pumpkin begins to soften.
Meanwhile, combine about 1 cup of the hot water with the vegetable broth and saffron in a saucepan. Heat for about 10 minutes, then set aside, keeping warm.
On medium heat, add the rice to the pumpkin mixture and sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add one third of the broth mixture and cook, stirring, until rice absorbs the broth. Add 1 cup of the water, and cook, stirring, until the rice absorbs it. Continue to add broth and water alternately, cooking and stirring, allowing the rice to absorb the liquid between each addition.
Cook until the rice is creamy but still al dente – with a bit of a bite, about 25 minutes. Finally, stir in the butter, ladel into serving bowls or plates and serve with a light scattering of Parmesan cheese, if using. Sarah notes to be careful not to overpower the delicate flavour of the saffron by using too much cheese.
Recipe reproduced courtesy of Sarah Fioroni and Shearer Publishing
See also these wonderful posts with more recipes and reviews of Sarah Fioroni’s cookbook: