|An Introduction to Saffron in Val d'Orcia and the Crete Senesi. Short Story of a Forgotten and Rediscovered Product (14th –21th Centuries)|
|The city of Siena maintained its territorial integrity for more than five centuries, until the 1766 reforms of the Granducato which reduced the city’s territory to the actual size. In the early 14th Century, the city’s role and importance in commerce changed alongside two other changes: the decline of northern European markets – in which the Sienese played an important role – and the political and military events that unfolded in opposition to Florence. Sienese mercantile and banking dynasties built their wealth upon short-distance trade and heavy capital investment in the contado. The affirmation of their commercial power accompanied the developing Sienese society until the evolution of the land tenancy system, which characterized the city’s economy beginning in the end of the 14th Century.
The year 1319 marked the founding of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, borne from the holdings of the Sienese Tolomei family. The Abbey, along with the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala – which in 1276 was already independent from the Sienese Church and held seventy different estates in the southern countryside of Siena – participated in the land management system based upon metayage, which came to characterize Siena’s territory, in both privately held and church-owned lands, lasting until the 20th century. The diversified agricultural model of sharecropped estates proved an excellent foundation upon which to plant specialized cultivations such as the crocus sativus flower. Highly speculative saffron trade appeared to be one of the resources of seines economy. In the 16th Century, Giovanni Vittorio Soderini, writing about saffron cultivation, commented upon Tuscany’s key role: “in Tuscany, in Siena and elsewhere, the best saffron grows, and there’s a great trade to the foreigners who use it very much.” Records testifying to the constant cultivation of saffron abound: on a farm owned by Santa Maria della Scala, in addition to vegetable gardens there is also record of a “garden” dedicated to olive trees and “ferraniale”, which means saffron cropping. Place names such as ferrale, ferranale and de le ferranesi, common in the sienese Crete and in the Val d’Orcia, all illuminate an agricultural past in which saffron cultivation played an important role.
But only a century later, both Santa Maria della Scala and Monte Oliveto Maggiore, which since the 1700s had, for general economic reasons as well as the depopulation of rural areas and cloisters,
begun to see the size of its landholdings diminish, had lost considerable power. At the same time, the economic interests of Sienese citizens were no longer as tied to trade and commerce. These developments led to a situation attested to by documents of another sort:“At present not only does [saffron] not sell well, but there is not even anyone who dedicates himself to producing it, not only because of its low price, but also because it no longer carries any prestige, as is well known.” Today saffron is riding a new high: but is its newfound popularity the survival of an historic tradition, or rather the revival of that tradition under the banner of high-status denomination-of- origin products?|