Some say that San Gimignano became a rich town thanks to dyed silks, and its medieval tower were often used to stretch poles that held the drying silk. There are many other theories that explain the towers of San Gimignano, but history tells us that it was saffron that built them. Hundreds of documents exist that show us that saffron was intensively cultivated at San Gimignano throughout the Middle Ages. We also know that saffron was a rare and expensive commodity, one that great fortunes could be built upon.
In Tuscany, saffron was first grown at San Gimignano. This product was so rare and valuable that in the early thirteenth century, saffron was often used as security for loans. Incredibly, some lenders preferred saffron to gold, jewels, or land. In the middle of that century, the King of Sicily came to the defense of San Gimignano in a war with Volterra. The leaders of the then city-state rewarded him for his efforts with a bag containing one hundred pounds of saffron. In the Middle Ages, taxes and duties on the exportation and trade of saffron were San Gimignano’s major source of revenue. The 72 towers of the town were built over three centuries by men who grew rich through cultivating and trading saffron.
Their good fortune, however, was not meant to last. By the late Middle Ages, with the increase of seafaring trade, saffron began to be imported to Italy from the lands of the Middle East. Iran and Palestine were sending their saffron to Italy, and the once unrivaled production of San Gimignano began to recede, becoming little more than a dim memory or bit of folklore passed about by old men in the ancient squares of San Gimignano.
Saffron threads, as we know them by the time they reach the consumer, are the carefully picked and dried stamens of the lovely purple flower, the croco sativo, or, in English, the crocus. Due to the efforts of one man, Bruno Bertelli, a young bus driver from San Gimignano, the town is once again producing some of the highest grade saffron in the world.
Bertelli had heard the tales of saffron and the glory days of San Gimignano, and in 1990 he was inspired to plant the bulbs of the croco sativo around the walls of the town. Amazingly, he knew nothing at all about growing saffron, but he suspected that the old tales held something valuable. He was right. The dry, hilly lands around San Gimignano were the perfect environment for saffron. According to Bertelli, the saffron yield in San Gimignano is the highest in Europe. Fifteen farms that hug the vineyards that produce Vernaccia now have plots designated for saffron production, and they produce more saffron per hectare than any other spot on the continent.
The saffron production of San Gimignano is carefully regulated. No chemicals are used at any time in the cultivating and drying of the crocus stamens. The resulting product is extremely pure and highly sought because of the careful methods used in its production.
The crocuses are planted in August, and they are ready to be harvested in October, when a brilliant blanket of their purple-to-blue petals covers the hills around San Gimignano. Boys from the area conduct the harvest, carefully collecting the fragile flowers. The stamens of the flowers are removed, with infinite care, in a workroom on an old farm where saffron has flourished for decades, unbeknownst to most local residents, just beyond the town.
Once the stamen are carefully harvested, the next step, requiring even more care, is to dry them. The fires used are of ilex wood. They warm the single workroom used in San Gimignano for this purpose to a temperature that must never exceed 40 degrees Celsius. The drying takes only twenty minutes, and then the stamens are put into tiny envelopes, each holding only one tenth of a gram of the precious saffron threads. In the year 2000, the entire saffron production of San Gimignano was just three and a half kilos.
Bruno Bertelli and his friends and associates, the growers of saffron in San Gimignano, have formed the Associazione “IL CROCO” to promote and regulate saffron production here. With help from the University of Florence and the Province of Tuscany, they have successfully reintroduced Lo Zafferano to their town. Saffron has taken its place beside wine and olive oil as one of the riches of the earth surrounding the medieval town of a thousand towers.