Italian Sourcing Trip
Italy is not perhaps the first country that springs to mind when you think about sourcing spices (!) but it is of course famous for its herbs. The UK does have organic herb growers, but unfortunately they are few and far between and unable to supply in any regularity, primarily due to our colder climate.
OREGANO FIELD BEFORE HARVEST
Many of the culinary herbs we use regularly here in the UK are native to the Mediterranean & Italy in particular. The warmer climate & mixture of altitudes are perfect for growing a wide variety of herbs. From the cooler foothills of the Alps in the North to the hot Sicilian plains in the South, Italy has a fantastic mixture of growing conditions for herbs. Added to this it is also one of the largest producers of organic agriculture in all of the European Union.
We flew into Pisa late on the first evening, too late for food & only just in time for the late check in at the guesthouse. The next morning, following a slice of pizza from the local bakery for breakfast we drove up from Pisa and into the region of Emilia Romagna, which lies on the edge of the Bolognese Apennines.
The region is best well known for producing Parmesan. Traditionally, farmers in the region either produced cow milk for the much loved cheese or grasses for hay to feed the cows. The region has also long been an advocate for organic farming. It was both of these reasons that attracted our host to the region in the early 80’s.
We had originally been put in contact with Simon through an organic seed producing company in our search to find a local Italian farmer partner to work with. Simon had left his Dutch homeland in the early 80’s and has lived in Emilia Romagna ever since. Dutch agriculture in the 80’s, like many other countries around the world, was following the monocropping chemical agriculture that was gaining popularity the world over.
SIMON AND MYSELF IN FIELD AFTER HARVEST
Feeling alienated by this linear & structured approach to agriculture, Simon decided to study biodynamic farming in search of a different system to implement. Following the completion of his course he travelled down to Italy in search of land to practice his new found knowledge. Simon initially rented a plot of land for a reasonable fee as the land was degraded and unproductive. It took him 7 years of working part time on the land to create soils that would allow him to farm using biodynamic principles. Having started with 5 hectares at the outset, this has increased to 25 hectares over the years. The farm is now a mixture of grains, herbs and woodland and using rotations and green manure to enhance soil fertility.
On arrival at the farm, Simon took me down the hill and into the first area of cultivated land where he was growing a mixture of medicinal and culinary herbs. Porcupines had managed to breach the outer fence he had installed and eaten some of the crops. He explained how he had tried to keep them out but to no avail, they must have burrowed under the fence somewhere along the 200m boundary on one side. Porcupines of all things are the most destructive animal that Simon has to deal with on his farm.
We carried on down into the field passing small parcels of land, divided by different crops and plants, maybe 50-60 in total until we reached the oregano. This is what we had travelled here for. The bright green leaves on long stalks around 50-75 cm tall each with either white or pink flowers. Bees and insects are everywhere, such great testimony to regenerative farming when wildlife is so abundant.
BEES ON OREGANO FLOWER
Although we had arranged to arrive for the oregano harvest, there is no way to guarantee it as conditions might not be right. So when it was mentioned the harvest would happen that afternoon, we were delighted. A loud clattering hand controlled machine made its way down the hill with Simon driving from behind. It was kind of like a large lawnmower with opening and closing teeth to capture then release the harvested oregano from the front.
OREGANO HARVEST MOWER
When Simon had arrived in the 80’s these machines were commonplace and it had clearly stood the test of time. Each of the farms in the early 80’s were run as self sustaining small holdings. Wheat was grown for pasta and bread, animal husbandry for milk and cheese, as well as vegetables and herbs. It was a simple life but one that Simon looked back on with fondness. He reminisced how the harvest period had brought people from the region together to celebrate each year. Food was shared, farming techniques compared and ideas discussed on what had worked and what would be used in the future. The hand driven harvest machine whose clattering grew louder and quieter as it went up and down the oregano field gave a glimpse into that bygone era.
Once the oregano had been cut and left in small bunches, the harvester was returned and the tractor with trailer brought down to the same field. Three of us with pitchfork in hand followed the tractor down the field carefully filling the trailer.
FILLING THE TRACTOR WITH HARVETED OREGANO
There were a few plants too small for the harvester that were then hand cut and added to the pile. As we walked through the filed collecting the harvest, I noticed a few bunches that had been left. These Simon explained would be the plants he would let go to seed and use for the following years planting. Taller in size & with white flowers, these were the plants that had performed best that year. This was local seed selection and breeding in action.
The seeds that would be collected a few weeks later would be those best suited to the soil and conditions on that particular farm. Such a simple and logical process now bizarrely foreign in todays intensive chemical agriculture. Simon had developed his own philosophy on the farm which he liked to call 90/10. The idea is that to build harmony between agriculture and nature, 10% of all crops or produce should effectively be for the animals and birds to feed on with the remaining 90% for harvest.
With increasing calls for an agriculture that can both rebuild biodiversity while also feeding us as a population, this idea of 90/10 goes a long way to meeting that narrative.
We returned to the processing area on the farm with the harvested oregano and unloaded it into the dryer. It was a solar powered dryer working with convection air flow and maintained at a low temperature of around 30 degrees. This allowed the harvested oregano to dry over the course of around 3-4 days. The longer slower drying process, means the herbs maintain much more of their colour and flavour. We left before the drying process was complete, but it was impressive to see the fully sustainable powered drying process in action. Once more the systems and structures Simon had built over the years, impressed us greatly.
SPREADING THE OREGANO FOR DRYING
Although we were unable to visit Simon’s partner farms to see the harvest of thyme, basil, rosemary, marjoram & sage, we look forward to making the trip back out in years to come to view these processes.