A cornflower cloud is coming from the field. The warm air complements the ethereal lemon scent of dark green leaves. When you close your eyes, you feel like a bug lost in a caprese salad. It’s similar, but without the 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.
Cypresses and pines rustle from 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 stand at a harvester that cuts off a few centimeters of basil, leaving the rest to continue growing. The sharp blade shaves off the tops of the grass, and the leaves are carefully transported to the boxes on the conveyor belt. Stivaletti, manager of the La Selva organic factory, rubs a few leaves in the palm of his hand to check the quality. Within a few hours, the basil is washed, chopped and processed into raw material for pesto in a nearby production facility. Optimum harvest time is crucial for taste.
“Do not miss anything, do not add anything” is the motto of the organic enterprise in Maremma, which was founded by a German. The company’s assortment includes 80 different field crops, fruits and vegetables, wine, pasta and tomato products, all without artificial fertilizers, without flavor additives, ecologically and honestly. Pure taste was the goal from the start. Munich organic pioneer Carl Egger founded La Selva in 1980. Together with music manager Manfred Eicher, he created the major jazz and classical music label ECM. Both 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 record of all time. Businessman Egger wanted to be closer to nature in the industrial area of Grefelfing, where ECM is based: “I wanted to get out, experience the seasons and finally enjoy food that lives up to its name and tastes like I remember from childhood: natural, intense and real.”
The dilapidated country estate near Albinia, which the Italophile founder bought to realize his dream of an organic farm in Tuscany, was called La Selva. It means “desert” and at first it looked deserted. Local farmers smiled at someone who changed careers from abroad. The soil seemed too drained to grow grapes, olives or tomatoes, especially without heavy use of fertilizers. Undeterred, Egger planted tomatoes, basil, eggplant and artichokes, which he fertilized with compost and a healthy dose of idealism.
Its seed sprout: back in 1984, La Selva was the first company certified by Naturland abroad, and in the early 1990s, the first antipasti in jars came off the conveyor belt at the farm. Now the cultivated area is almost ten times larger than it was at the beginning, and on 630 hectares, the company produces more than 200 different delicacies. One million organic cans from Tuscany are sold every year in Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, as well as in Scandinavia, France, Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania and even in Japan and the USA. Only 20 million units of pulp, passata, salsa, sauces and sun-dried tomatoes leave the tomato factory in Donoratico each year, filled in cans, not aluminum or plastic. This makes La Selva one of the average producers in Italy. A romantic organic farm has long since turned into an international company with a marketing department, target group analysis and computerized production management.
Egger’s daughters Elodie and Caroline headed the company a few years ago, with the eldest retiring and handing over the reins to Christian Stivaletti. Although the business is still growing and the new production building and functional offices have just been built, a visit to La Selva gives you the feeling of being a guest of a very large, ideal farm family. Everyone speaks by name, we have known each other for decades, some of the workers who now manage the farm and the factory are the children and grandchildren of the workers who worked for Carl Egger back then.
At the agriturismo, right above the farm shop, you can go on a holiday including a tour of the farm, tours and tastings in the cantina. It is rural, guests eat their own farm products in a common kitchen. Sometimes the chef cooks personally. Christian Stivaletti takes off his straw hat, rolls up the sleeves of his checkered shirt, and begins cleaning two boxes of basil. In the staff kitchen, there is a long wooden table where employees gather to eat together. In keeping with the company’s motto, there are in-house produce 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 to taste – and the aromatic pesto is ready.
Stivaletti now dices potatoes and drops them into boiling water. Potatoes provide starch and ensure that the pasta binds more sauce, and the buttery pesto does not slide off the pasta – an old trick of Italian housewives. It all looks and tastes very authentic, but do you wonder how the pure, handcrafted Italian taste can be sustainably produced on such a large scale for the European market? During the meal, Christian Stivaletti outlines the size of the company and the ecological way of working. “This is a closed cycle,” he explains, “according to a complex plan, crop rotations alternate for seven to eight years.” Agricultural engineers use a computer program to plan complex changes in 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 fruit growing, as vineyards or pastures for hay production. Part is always fallow and planted with leguminous crops, which enrich the soil with nitrogen. Hay is fed to 180 heads of Chianina cattle, whose excrement is composted together with vegetable waste, and then used as fertilizer on the fields. However, in the dry climate of the Maremma, nothing works without irrigation. Three people check the widely branched hoses by themselves every day – magpies constantly cut holes in them to get to the water. Otherwise, there are few problems with pests, the ecological circular economy is a natural protection measure.
Recently, southern Tuscany has been without rain for almost two months, but during the pesto break, a thunderstorm breaks out here. As the rain pours down outside, Monica Mayer, responsible for quality assurance, will take you on a tour of the newly expanded factory. She explains the basil production line, where the herbs are washed, dried, crushed and finally filled into 200-liter barrels with oil as raw material for pesto and tomato sauces. Four workers are busy cleaning green asparagus, the delicate parts are processed into asparagus cream. If artichokes were cleaned by hand two years ago, now there is a cleaning machine that works ten times faster. However, workers are not left without work, there is plenty to do, especially during the harvest.
The fact that an organic producer takes social and environmental responsibility seems to be paying off. While Italy’s predominantly Eastern European harvesters work in scandalous conditions for well below the minimum wage, La Selva pays a fair wage, certified by the Naturland association. Between the fields there are shelters for animals: fallows, forests, lakes, an insect garden, bird sanctuaries and pheasant enclosures. Elodie Egger, who is responsible for sustainability at the company, has just created a pollinator garden next to the main building with sage, lavender, sunflowers, verbena and other plants from the region. The goal of the project is to have something in bloom year-round to attract as many insects as possible to pollinate the fruits and vegetables in the plot.
In Italy, the market for organic products is growing by 15 percent annually
“Simple and genuine, natural and fresh”, is one of the opinions of the founder Carl Egger, “this is the secret of good Italian cuisine, as well as the leitmotif of organic farming”. Apparently, this principle also works on a large scale. However, an organic farm cannot do without traditional machinery, 50 diesel tractors and combines are in operation. Business-wise, things are going well, especially since organic awareness is also growing in Italy, and the market is growing at 15 percent a year. There, more than 16 percent of the area is cultivated organically, in Germany only ten percent.
The initial skepticism of Carl Egger’s neighbors has turned to respect over the decades. Some farmers sold their fields to the organic pioneer, while others switched to organic farming on his advice. La Selva celebrated its final opening in early 2022, when Gambero Rosso gastroguide named La Selva’s classic dish ‘Passata di Pomodoro’, made with Tuscan tomatoes, as the ‘Best Italian Food of 2022’: ‘A beautiful, fiery red Passata (…) . Tender and harmonious in the nose and mouth, both raw and heated.” The award is considered the “Oscar of the taste of Italy” – and, in the end, it was won by a tomato product of a German company.