A basil cloud comes from the field. The warm air wafts in the ethereal, lemony scent of the deep green leaves. When you close your eyes, you feel like you’re a bug that got lost in a caprese salad. It’s similar, only without mozzarella and tomatoes: an eight-hectare basil field near Albinia in the Maremma, the Tuscan sun is beating down, and the harvest has just begun.
Cypress and pine trees rustle in the breeze that sweeps across the plain from the nearby sea. Pheasants screech in the bushes, otherwise only the hum of tractors can be heard. Christian Stivaletti and three employees are standing on a harvester that cuts a few centimeters of basil, leaving the rest to continue growing. A sharp blade shaves off the tops of the herb, and the leaves are carefully conveyed into crates on a conveyor belt. Stivaletti, manager of the La Selva organic factory, rubs a few leaves in his hand to check the quality. Within a few hours, the basil is washed, chopped up and processed into the raw material for pesto in the nearby production hall. The optimal harvest time is decisive for the taste.
“Leave nothing out, add nothing” is the motto of the organic company in Maremma, which was founded by a German. The company has 80 different field crops, fruit and vegetables, wine, pasta and tomato products in its range, all without artificial fertilizers, without flavor additives, ecologically and fairly. The goal from the beginning was pure taste. The Munich organic pioneer Karl Egger founded La Selva in 1980. Together with the music manager Manfred Eicher, he had made the jazz and classical music label ECM big. The two made their breakthrough in 1975 with Keith Jarrett’s legendary album “The Köln Concert”, at the age of four Millions of copies sold, the most successful solo jazz recording of all time. Businessman Egger longed for being close to nature in the Gräfelfing industrial area, where ECM is based: “I wanted to get out, experience the seasons and finally enjoy food that deserves its name and tastes the way I remembered it from my childhood : natural, intense and genuine.”
The dilapidated country estate near Albinia, which the Italophile company founder bought to fulfill his dream of an organic farm in Tuscany, was called La Selva. That means “wilderness”, and at first it looked deserted. The farmers here smiled at the career changer from abroad. The soil seemed too drained to grow vines, olives or tomatoes there, especially without heavy use of fertiliser. Unimpressed by this, Egger planted tomatoes, basil, aubergines and artichokes, which he fertilized with compost and a healthy dose of idealism.
His seed sprout: as early as 1984, La Selva was the first Naturland-certified company abroad, and in the early 1990s the first antipasti in jars rolled off the assembly line at the Hofmanufaktur. The area under cultivation is now almost ten times larger than it was at the beginning, and the company produces more than 200 different delicatessen products on 630 hectares. A million organic jars from Tuscany are sold every year in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, but also in Scandinavia, France, Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania, and even in Japan and the USA. 20 million units of polpa, passata, salsa, sauces and sun-dried tomatoes alone leave the tomato factory in Donoratico every year, filled in jars, not in aluminum or plastic. This makes La Selva one of the medium-sized producers in Italy. The romantic organic farm has long since grown into an international company with a marketing department, target group analyzes and computer-controlled production.
Egger’s daughters Elodie and Caroline took over the company a few years ago, the senior retired and handed over the management to Christian Stivaletti. Although the business is still growing and a new production building and functional offices have just been built, a visit to La Selva gives you the feeling of being the guest of a very large, idealistic farming family. Everyone is on first-name terms, they have known each other for decades, and some of the employees who are now in charge of farming and manufacturing are the children and grandchildren of workers who Karl Egger employed at the time.
In the agriturismo, directly above the farm shop, you can go on vacation, including a tour of the farm, field visits and tastings in the cantina. It is rustic, the guests cater for themselves with farm products in the communal kitchen. Sometimes the chef cooks personally. Christian Stivaletti takes off his straw hat, rolls up his checked shirt sleeves and begins cleaning two boxes of basil. There is a long wooden table in the staff kitchen where employees meet to eat together. True to the company motto, there are own products fresh from the field, on this day pasta with homemade pesto and Caprese salad. Stivaletti stuffs the leaves into a cutter, adds garlic, pine nuts and grated pecorino according to the taste – and the fragrant pesto is ready.
Stivaletti now cuts a potato into cubes and throws them into the boiling water. The potatoes give off starch and ensure that the pasta binds more sauce and the oily pesto does not slide off the pasta, an old trick of Italian housewives. It all looks and tastes very authentic, but one wonders how the pure, handmade Italian taste can be sustainably produced on such a large scale for the European market? During the meal, Christian Stivaletti outlines the dimensions of the company and the ecological way of working. “It’s a closed circuit,” he explains, “according to a sophisticated plan, the crop rotations rotate within seven to eight years.” Agricultural engineers use a computer program to plan the complex changes on the plots.
La Selva grows vegetables and herbs on about 100 hectares of land, the rest of the area is grazed by Apennine sheep or used for growing fruit, as vineyards or grassland for hay production. A part always lies fallow and is planted with legumes that enrich the soil with nitrogen. The hay is fed to 180 Chianina cattle, whose excrement is composted together with waste from vegetable production and later used as fertilizer in the fields. In the dry climate of the Maremma, however, nothing works without irrigation. Three people are alone every day to check the extensive hose lines – magpies keep hacking holes in them to get to the water. Otherwise there are few problems with pests, the ecological circular economy is a natural defensive measure.
Recently it hasn’t rained in southern Tuscany for almost two months, but a thunderstorm breaks out here during the pesto break. While it’s pouring outside, Monika Mayer, who is responsible for quality assurance, guides you through the new, enlarged factory. She explains the basil production line, where the herbs are washed, dried, chopped and finally filled into 200-litre drums with oil, as a raw material for pesto and tomato sauces. Four workers are busy cleaning green asparagus, the tender parts are processed into asparagus cream. Until two years ago artichokes were peeled by hand, now there is a peeling machine that is ten times faster. Nevertheless, the workers have not lost their jobs, there is plenty to do, especially at harvest time.
The fact that the organic producer assumes social and ecological responsibility seems to be paying off. While in Italy mainly Eastern European harvest workers toil under scandalous conditions for well below minimum wage, La Selva pays fair wages certified by the Naturland association. Between the fields there are retreats for animals: fallow land, forests, lakes, an insect garden, bird sanctuaries and pheasant enclosures. Elodie Egger, who is responsible for sustainability at the company, has just planted a pollinator garden next to the main building with sage, lavender, sunflowers, verbena and other plants from the region. Aim of the project: Something should bloom all year round in order to attract as many insects as possible that pollinate the fruit and vegetables in the area.
In Italy, the market for organic goods is growing by up to 15 percent every year
“Simple and genuine, natural and fresh”, is one of the thoughts of founder Karl Egger, “that is the secret of good Italian cuisine, but also the leitmotif of organic farming.” Apparently, this principle also works on a large scale. However, the organic farm cannot do without conventional technology; 50 diesel-powered tractors and harvesters are in use. Commercially, things are going well, especially since organic awareness is also increasing in Italy and the market is growing by up to 15 percent a year. More than 16 percent of the areas are farmed organically there, in Germany it is only ten percent.
The initial skepticism of Karl Egger’s neighbors has turned into respect over the decades. Some farmers sold their fields to the organic pioneer, while others switched to organic farming with his advice. La Selva celebrated its final incorporation in early 2022, when gastro guide Gambero Rosso named the La Selva classic “Passata di Pomodoro” made from Tuscan tomatoes as “Top Italian Food 2022”: “A beautiful, fiery red passata (…) .Tender and harmonious in the nose and mouth, both raw and heated.” The prize is regarded as Italy’s taste Oscar – and it went to the tomato product of a German company, of all things.