|Just a small selection from the Franchi Sementi range, which numbers
over 500 different seed varieties in total.
With a friendly welcome and coffee and biscuits it was also a chance to chat about growing produce in the UK with the immensely knowledgeable and infinitely enthusiastic Paolo Arrigo, head of Seeds Of Italy and author of From Seed To Plate, which is one of my favourite cookbooks.
Paolo was keen to talk about provenance on Saturday - how the parent company, which has been run by the Franchi family since 1783, carefully sources its seeds, how the Italians treat the locality of its produce with the utmost seriousness, how the produce specific to each region is used together. Much of the seed sold in the UK these days, Paolo says, is bought in from China, with little attention paid to its suitability for our climate. In contrast, looking at - for example - the courgette varieties offered by Franchi, I can see Zucchino Bolognese (from Bologna), Zucchino Genovese (from Genoa), Zucchino Fiorentino (from Florence) and Zucchino Nero di Milano (the black courgette of Milan!). You don't get different British counties extolling the provenance of their parsnips, although a few regional varieties live on in the names - Kelvedon Wonder peas, for instance. Interestingly, as Paolo points out, we're better at protecting the local heritage of our fruit: think of all the different apple varieties and where they come from.
And compared to China, Italy is much closer to the UK in terms of growing conditions, Paolo explains. We may think of Italy as mainly Mediterranean, and hot, but 74% of the country is mountainous and the southern tip and Sicily aside, it gets very cold in winter.
I can believe it. I've always bought as much of my seed from Seeds Of Italy as possible, because 1) the quantities of seed in each packet is always generous, 2) the varieties offered are always interesting and frequently different to those on sale in the shops here. Lots of different - and very local - courgettes and squashes, for instance, from the deliciously sweet and nutty Berrettina Piacentina pumpkins to the round stuffing courgette Tondo di Nizza. It was also Seeds of Italy that introduced me to the pink and white striped beetroot from Chioggia, which I know is now available more widely but which was quite surprise find 10 years ago. 3) I always get good results from Franchi Seeds: near 100% germination and healthy plants. Lastly, and definitely not least, is this idea of provenance, of knowing where the seed is from and where it has been saved. The blurb that comes with Seeds Of Italy packets online is always knowledgeable and specific (in contrast, amusingly, to the sowing instructions, which are decidedly cryptic!).
After a delicious couple of hours browsing, I left happy, clutching a number of seed packets, including some Puntarelle - that crunchy Roman salad leaf, a variety of chicory, which I now discover originally hails from Catalonia rather than Italy, even though it's now so strongly associated with Rome. I'll plant this along with the other chicories I grow, the round radicchio and elongated red Rossa di Treviso, and look forward to winter salads next year.
|When Paolo Arrigo isn't extolling the virtues of locally
raised Italian seeds, he rescues and restores
accordions in his spare time. This beautiful accordion
is around 80 years old and sounds as good as new.