Paolo Arrigo can’t sit still. A fourth-generation London Italian, he wears his multiculturalism on his sleeve, enthusing wildly about all his passions from slow food, endangered vegetables and biodiversity to foraging, cooking from scratch and accordion-playing. He talks quickly and with conviction, always in a hurry to stand up for what he believes in and to get things done. His company, Seeds of Italy, is a full-time job, but he also gives 50 talks a year to groups, sits on several volunteer committees, has just trained as a St John Ambulance operational events first aider and has even gone to the Ukrainian border three times over the past year to drive refugees to safety. When he cares, he acts.


For Paolo, gardening and food are indistinguishable. Seeds of Italy, which he started in 1999, imports and distributes the highly regarded Franchi seed brand from Bergamo in northern Italy, close to the Italian Alps. “I was helping out in my dad’s deli in London and I thought it would be cool to have a stand selling seeds. It made perfect sense to me. In an Italian market, tomatoes in all their forms are on sale alongside each other: fresh, bottled as sauce plus the seeds and plants to grow them – it’s all seen as food.”

A staggering 94 per cent of the world’s heritage varieties have been lost over the past century.

Soon he had persuaded other delis and farm shops to take the seed too, and the business took off. Franchi is the oldest family run seed company in the world, established in 1783, and their principles chime with Paolo’s. “Franchi aren’t just suppliers, they are seed producers: they celebrate heritage, taste and regionality, and commission the seed to be grown just for them. Do you know, a staggering 94 per cent of the world’s heritage varieties have been lost over the past century? It matters! We need variety. Seed banks are great as insurance policies but really, the only way to preserve all these wonderful old varieties is to keep growing them.”

To bang this drum, Paolo created a Slow Food ‘Ark of Taste’ garden at the 2019 RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, which won him not only a seventh RHS medal but also the title of Slow Food in the UK’s Person of the Year – a career highlight. “Slow Food is a huge worldwide food movement, founded in Italy [in 1989], that celebrates regional foods and highlights varieties at risk of being lost. Rather than rhinos and pandas two by two, we had endangered vegetables going on to the ark.”

My philosophy is, if you pull something up, why not put something in?

There are stories behind many of the 500-plus varieties that Paolo sells in the UK, and he’s keen to tell them. “Far from corporate varieties, these are seeds with soul. ‘Viroflay’ spinach dates back to the 16th century and will give you four harvests a year. It’s wonderful but it would never be sold in food shops because you need to eat it as soon as you pick it. Our Neapolitan ‘San Marzano 2’ seeds originated on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and they will produce tomatoes that are far superior to any you can buy.” His family comes from Piedmont in northern Italy, so
he understands food crops for colder climates. “We’re great at spring sowing in Britain but the worst at sowing seasonally. Apart from December and January, you can grow vegetables here all year round. My philosophy is, if you pull something up, why not put something in?”

Brexit has been a thorn in Paolo’s side and he still rails against it, citing the increased bureaucracy and continuing uncertainty as massive challenges that have forced him to reduce his available range. In 2019 he launched a Brexit survival kit of 12 vegetable varieties, offering something to sow or harvest every month of the year. “It started as a bit of a joke but actually, it was very well thought out.” This year he has responded to 2022’s low rainfall by highlighting both drought-resistant vegetable varieties and native British wildflowers. “We try to be very hands on and we love people to call us. Seeds are such a precious commodity and I want people to understand that.”

Seeds are such a precious commodity and I want people to understand that.

Helping customers to grow more and grow better is Paolo’s quest. Food has always been at the centre of his family life and the how-to book he wrote, From Seed To Plate (Simon & Schuster, 2010), honours that tradition. He and his wife Alex, also of Italian heritage, are bringing up their children in the same way: son Vincenzo, 18, and daughter Amelia, 14, have learned to forage fungi, just as Paolo did with his own father. He recounts how, as a teenager, he once played truant and went off into the woods for the day. Coming across two perfect porcini mushrooms presented him with a dilemma, but knowing they were too good to waste, he took them home. “I got a hiding for missing school, but we did have a wonderful porcini risotto that night and secretly, I think my dad was rather proud of me!”


Find out more about Seeds of Italy at