Ancient Fruits of Orvieto, the forgotten tastes of antiquity
Giulio Leonardi is a passionate researcher of forgotten varieties of fruit. In his nursery you can taste the fruit before you buy a plant
by Filippo Benedetti Valentini
There are farmers who plant a seed and then hope for favorable market trends. Giulio Leonardi has done the opposite. Beyond running a nursery and cultivating fruit, he is first and foremost a researcher. He researches ancient fruits, ones with a strong bond to the land and which have been all but forgotten by the large distributors. Those in danger of extinction.
A 42-year-old Roman who came to Umbria to study agricultural science in the 1990s, Giulio opened his business in Caccavelle, about 10 kilometers from Orvieto. He called it Azienda Vivaistica Frutticoltura Orvieto. Here, on two hectares of land, he grows more than 250 native varieties of tree: apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry, apricot, pomegranate, persimmon and fig. Plants grown for centuries in Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany, but which in recent decades have been replaced by varieties more receptive to high-level cultivation.
Giulio brought them back home. He has Monteleone pears, typical of the area around Orvieto: the hard pulp is good for cooking and the preparation of preserves. Or the Coccianese apple, originally from Guardea (Terni), a variety which lasts a long time even after it’s picked. The Coscia di Monaca (Nun’s Thigh) plum, long, yellow and aromatic: it’s a resilient plant that doesn’t require special care. Then there is the Queen of London peach, a “late” fruit which ripens in mid-September and has a sweet white pulp. In the nursery we also find the Long Stem Ravenna cherry, crunchy and strong in flavor. But there are also unusual fruits such as the true service fruit (Sorbus domestica), similar to an apple and rich in vitamin C. For every fruit there is a wide variety and something for every palate. From May to November ripe fruit can be picked directly from the trees and tasted in order to decide which plant to buy. A real open-air tasting.
The plants are grown in an area of volcanic rock. There are few houses, and all around are wheat fileds and chestnut groves. Giulio grows them one by one, accompanied by the endless whistling of the wind. It all starts with the search for these particular varieties, thanks to the help of the regional authorities. He recovers them through grafting in his nursery, thereby helping repopulate the species. Planted in winter, once they have grown they are potted for sale to anyone wishing to cultivate their own orchard, field or garden.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds, though. The reemployment of native species, in fact, is not merely a way to replenish biodiversity: these plants with ancient DNA are suitable for harsh climates and, above all, they are robust enough not to require chemical protection from disease. Once planted, they produce edible fruit within 4-5 years. For the peaches, one year is enough. Starting at 10 euro per plant, anyone with a garden can have a low-maintenance orchard at home. And the fruit!
And that’s not all. At the Azienda Vivaistica Frutticoltura Orvieto di Giulio Leonardi, where they provide assistance during the initial phases of cultivation, they also offer select varieties with fewer roots which can be potted. Now the modern dream of an orchard a few steps from the table is accessible to city-dwellers, too.