Poggio Diavolino: vegetables of the past are a resource for the future
Poggio Diavolino is a peculiar agriturism farm, located at the heart of the Tuscan hills, in the Medieval village of Suvereto, Livorno, not far from the seaside and Elba. We asked owner Fabiano Busdraghi about his job, and about the interesting story of his “vegetable garden”, where a variety of rare species, long-forgotten by most farmers, continue to grow today.
Your career path is quite tortuous.
Yes, it is. I was born in Lombardy, near Carate Brianza, in 1980. I graduated in physics and have a Ph.D. in oceanic thermodynamics. I took part in a number of oceanographic missions, including two in Antarctica, but realized I was heading towards a life inside a lab, sitting in front of a computer. That was not for me.
What did you do then?
First I started working as a photographer in Paris, where I lived at the time. I held a few shows and became interested in old printing techniques, fine photography, fashion shootings, advertisements, cookbooks… I even created an online magazine that became quite successful. I was an assistant, a printer, a photo retouch expert, a lighting and digital capture technician… I’ve probably had every job that might be somehow related to cameras.
But then you decided to change again. Why?
Paris is a beautiful city, but I started missing the countryside and still longed for a more outdoorsy life than photography could offer. I found myself spending way too many hours in front of a screen again. So I started to think about moving back to Poggio Diavolino.
Yes, Poggio Diavolino is the farm and agritourism destination my parents opened in the early 1990s. I went there a lot as a kid.
Poggio Diavolino means “devilish hill”: what an interesting name. Can you explain where it comes from?
Suvereto, like all of Val di Cornia, is a very high geothermal activity area, with many natural springs and spas. Poggio Diavolino was probably named after the fact that people could see steam rising from the ground, and old farmers associated the smell of sulfur with demons. You rarely smell it today, usually only on rainy winter days.
Another theory is that the town was named after the interesting concave stones with concentric, circular grooves that are sometimes found in the fields around Poggio Diavolino. They are relatively rare calcite bowls, which have scientists still trying to explain their origin exactly; they were traditionally called “devil’s bowls”, and perhaps inspired the name of our hills.
In any case, whatever the true etymology of its name may be, today everyone agrees that Poggio Diavolino is a lot more like heaven than hell!
What are the farm’s main focuses?
Olives are our main interest, followed by pastures and animal feed. Since the beginning, we chose traditional, non-intensive methods for our olive groves – first of all to maintain the landscape, with its harmonious oscillation between plantations and green grass. Tuscany’s beauty is also the result of our forefathers’ choices in agronomy, so we continue to implement natural farming: leaving more room between trees means they get more sun, more light, more nutrients – so they grow healthier and need fewer interferences from us.
I can already tell you care more about quality than quantity…
That’s true. Ours is a small farm of only twelve hectares, with poor and marginal soils, that could never compete with larger companies. By focusing on quality, we turn these shortcomings into assets.
What about animal breeding?
We have cows, pigs, and unusual breeds of so-called “courtyard animals”. For example, we have some very special ornamental chickens that lay colored eggs! It’s a completely natural result that depends on the intrinsic qualities of the breed, not food additives or anything artificial. We get pink, white, chocolate brown, light blue and even bronze-green eggs: a whole rainbow of colors!
Your colorful eggs are not the only peculiar product on your farm. You also grow rare, ancient, forgotten vegetables…
Yes, a few years ago I started growing many kinds of unusual vegetables in between the olive trees. Some are considered “ancient” because they were eaten by the Romans or during the Middle Ages, such as parsnip. Others are traditional varieties tied to the local territory and its history, such as trumpet zucchini. However, there is no universal definition of “forgotten” vegetables, so sometimes even rare, exotic, or simply particular species fall within the category.
You also have many different types of tomato…
Yes, we grow over seventy varieties, only a few of them red. We grow white, yellow, orange, green, purplish, brown, black and even blue tomatoes! Not to mention the color combinations: red with green stripes, yellow with orange ones… our garden is a kaleidoscope! There are infinite hues and thousands of shapes and sizes, which yield a huge variety of flavors.
Any other vegetables?
This year, we planted about twenty special varieties of pumpkin, which come in very odd shapes. We also have potatoes that look more like two-color apples, and some that are red, blue, even black. We also have beans, various tubers, roots, and vegetables with strange, exotic names: turnip-rooted chervil, skirret, rutabaga, Jerusalem artichokes, chufa sedge…
Do you implement any particular farming methods?
Poggio Diavolino is all in the hills: there is not a square meter of flat land. The soil is difficult, rich in clay and heavy, full of rocks. All of our vegetables are grown in small quantities in a large family garden, where most of the work is done by hand just like in our grandparents’ time. We always keep in mind favorable pairings, natural rhythms, soil fertility, and life’s variety.
Why are certain types of vegetables phased out from regular farming?
With a few exceptions made due to taste or intrinsic value, it’s almost always due to economic reasons. First of all, ancient species are generally less productive than modern ones, and often yield between one third and half the crop compared to today’s high-performance varieties. Some plants are very slow to grow, and we all know time is money. For example, carrots can be planted and sold within three months, making the field immediately available for another crop; parsnip instead needs at least five or six months, thus easily yields half the revenue.
Certain vegetables pose problems also due to their size and shape…
That’s right. In some cases, it’s difficult or even impossible to pick or pack vegetables mechanically. For example, most older tomato varieties are very fragile, and must be eaten locally, freshly picked; modern varieties, instead, can travel for days and still look shiny and perfect in the produce section of the grocery store.
So why do you grow such “difficult” vegetables?
The difficulties they pose are a disadvantage only if you consider farming, and more in general food, as nothing more than business. I believe food is also flavor, culture, love. Ancient vegetables often taste so much better than modern varieties, which have had to make many compromises in the name of money. They are diverse and interesting – we dare say more beautiful – and satisfy the refined curiosity of those who like trying out new culinary experiments. There is more… should all of these reasons seem slightly frivolous – because they center on the fleeting pleasure of the eyes and taste buds – there is a third reason that is absolutely serious and important: these peculiar vegetables have an airtight ethical value…
How is that?
They represent biodiversity. From the Second World War on, genetic erosion has progressed to the point it now poses a huge risk for humanity. It is thanks to biodiversity that plants, and living beings in general, are able to face adversities of all kinds: pests, diseases, fungi, climate change… Choosing to grow only a very small number of selected vegetables is very dangerous in the long run. Forgotten species are not only a whim in the name of aesthetics or a special treat for foodies. They represent a larger gene pool that can help us confront challenges in the future, like a living bank where every possible food in the planet is stored.
How do you find these “bizarre” products of nature?
There are no limits but one’s own curiosity. I study, search for information, read books and essays about agronomy, google, participate in online forums and Facebook groups… I do all of these activities every day, but the best way to find out about something new is always for me to visit some old farmer.
Old farmers often are the keepers of a rare, even unique variety of vegetables that have been passed on from generation to generation in their families. Sometimes they don’t even realize it, until someone like me is interested in their work. After years of being ignored, they are usually happy and proud to show me their vegetable garden. I learn so much from them, and often come home with a handful of seeds and a beautiful story.
Are there any documents or historical sources that you can refer to, when you need more information about vegetables from the past?
It’s very important to always check historical sources, because modern varieties are sometimes marketed as ancient just because they have a peculiar look, or to sell them at a higher price. I have nothing against modern varieties – I grow some myself: what matters is expanding a garden’s genetic diversity – but you should always differentiate between old and new, out of honesty and consistency.
Is there a specific reference book you go to?
There is an incredible book that is the go-to book for forgotten vegetables, titled “Le potager d’un curieux. Histoire, culture et usages de 200 plantes comestibles”, by Auguste Pailleux and Désiré Bois. It was originally published in 1892, to sum up almost two decades of research conducted by the director of the Paris Museum of Natural History and president of the French Botanical Society at the time. The authors’ goal was to introduce every possible edible plant, sourced all around the world, in France and in French colonies. They compiled an incredible, invaluable list that seems to include every possible vegetable! Today “Le potager d’un curieux” is a real treasure trove of information on rare, exotic, peculiar and almost unknown plants.
Is there a market of clients interested in these agricultural oddities?
Yes, and lately we’ve seen a growing interest for environmental issues, healthy eating, biodiversity and sustainability. The guests who stay at Poggio Diavolino are usually delighted about our products and our methods, and are happy to visit our garden, taking pictures of every plant, fruit, and root. They’ve never seen anything like it. Since we have many species that are impossible to find elsewhere, we have started distributing some products through express delivery, so that our clients don’t necessarily have to come visit us to taste our unique vegetables. That said, for now forgotten vegetables are still widely unknown and remain a niche product in Italy.
Is there one ancient or rare species that you are particularly attached to?
There are so many it would be impossible to list them all! My friends jokingly say that I treat my animals and my plants as if they were my children… and I have to admit, they’re right! I have a soft spot for parsnip, which I think has one of the most interesting and pleasant flavors of all ancient vegetables. It is also beautiful to look at and incredibly versatile in the kitchen – it’s really a shame it is overlooked by the mass market. Another wonderful root, with a delicious, delicate flavor, is turnip-rooted chervil.
What about tomatoes?
The Gregori Altai variety, which comes from the Siberian mountains at the border with China, has a complex flavor that keeps sweet and acidic in perfect balance. Green Doctors are instead a quite recent American variety of cherry tomatoes, which remain completely green even when fully ripe. They are amazing.
You also grow a large number of pumpkins…
My favorite is the “courge galeuse giraumon d’Eysines”: an ancient variety that originally grew in the swamps around Bordeaux. We have descriptions about it dating back to the 1800s. Its name and aesthetics are bombastic – it was also called “embroidered pumpkin” –because it looks like it is covered in peanut shells. It has an outstanding flavor, with sharp hazelnut and chestnut notes. It’s the Rolls Royce of pumpkins.
What is the most bizarre vegetable in your garden?
I would guess Chinese artichokes. These tubers were served even to the Chinese emperor, and have a very refined flavor, like a mix between an artichoke and an asparagus. The root looks really weird, like a seashell… or a huge larva!
Can you bring a plant species back to life after it has disappeared?
No, unfortunately when a vegetable disappears completely it is extinct forever. There are ways to recreate a whole plant from a single fragment – a technique called “micropropagation”, for example, is currently being used to achieve virus-free potatoes – without planting a seed. Many cells are “totipotent”, meaning they are able to regenerate the whole being they belong to… but you still need a living cell to begin with. So when farmers stop growing a certain kind of vegetable, there is an extremely high risk of loosing it forever. Unfortunately, hundreds of varieties of vegetables, fruits and grains have become extinct in Italy in the past century. It’s a terrible thing, and has been going on in a context of widespread indifference.