Saffron cultivation has been documented since the 13th century in the area of San Gimignano. As early as 1200 the quality of this Tuscan town’s saffron earned it such renown that it was exported to other Italian cities, like Pisa and Genoa, but also to Oriental and African markets, like Alexandria, Tunis, Damietta, Acre, Tripoli and Aleppo.
The wealth that this trade created allowed San Gimignano’s most powerful families to build the city’s tall stone towers, which are the unique architectural feature of its skyline.
Saffron was used as a tool of diplomacy by city authorities, In 1241, for instance, San Gimignano sent 25 pounds of saffron as a gift to Frederick II, then head of the Holy Roman Empire, who had set up an encampment near the city.
Facts show that from the beginning of its cultivation, saffron was used in cooking and also for dyeing cloth, as a medicine and as a pigment in paint. The spice is mentioned in numerous contracts, financial documents, and in the body of municipal laws exisiting from the period of the Middle Ages.
Saffron had so many uses and applications that it was also a form of currency, and it was subject to strict regulation of weight and quality. Physicians and chemists were responsible for the maintenance, calibration and correct operation of the scales used to weigh this precious spice. Descendents of those experts still live in San Gimignano and, because the word “weight” translated to Italian is peso, they bear family names like Pesalgruoghi or Pesalgruoci.