As I drive east, the gentle rolling hills of Tuscany gradually give way to lofty peaks and deep valleys. The scenery takes my breath away, in every sense: I draw a deep breath before setting down steep roads next to sheer drops, no guard rails.
I’m on the way to Le Marche, a region in east-central Italy. Like Tuscany, its better-known neighbour, Marche has hilltop villages, stone houses coloured warm by the sun, crumbling castles and tall sycamores. But Marche also has the constantly shifting hues of the Adriatic Ocean and the dramatic Apennine Mountains, their hills a patchwork of greens and gold. There’s a refreshing lack of visual noise; hardly any souvenir shops, tour buses or billboards. Most of all, it’s quiet. In many ways, Le Marche feels like the Italy I visited as a kid in the 70s.
I’m off to cooking school. Before leaving, my children reminded me food-preparation is probably not my most shiny mothering skill. “Cooking lessons are wasted on you. You can’t even microwave popcorn without burning it,” they said.
Cheeky daughters notwithstanding, I’m here to learn simple farm-to-fork cooking. I’m to experience the entire process: visiting vineyards, seeing busy bees produce honey, shopping for meats and cheeses, picking vegetables, and create a 5-course-feast. Bit daunting that. As it turns out, I’m also to get up at 4am for la transumanza, herding cattle to summer grazing.
Arriving at the 300-year-old stone house locally known as Ca’ Camone, I’m dusty and grimy after dashing across gravel roads with open windows. Fortunately, I’m greeted by a guy wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
But looks can be deceiving. This is no California beach bum. Jason Bartner is a professional chef with years of experience at high-end restaurants in San Francisco and New York – and with a heart for the slow food movement. Today, Jason and his wife Ashley run La Tavola Marche, an eco-friendly agriturismo and cooking school near the village of Piobbico, in the foothills of the Apennines.
Ashley is a lively Seattle-girl with expressive dark eyes who makes me feel at home right away. I ask if she is Italian. Normally it’s Jason who gets that, she laughs. ‘You must be Italian,’ locals tell him. ‘You cook just like my mamma. Please tell me you are at least a little bit Italian.’
Cooking in Italy
As an introduction to the local cuisine, we’re invited to dine under the stars. Salami, dried sausages, pecorino cheese and home-cured olives are on the table. There’s prosciutto & melon, eggs with salsa verde, a particularly delicious lentil salad, a pear & pine nut salad. And we’re still only at the antipasti.
Primo is often a carbohydrate-rich course. We’re served Strozzapreti pasta (meaning strangled priests!) with baby courgette. Secondo is rosemary-skewered sausage, steak and pancetta with grilled polenta. To go with all this meaty goodness, we drink local house wines – a Montepulciano red and a Verdicchio white. For dolce, sweet dessert, we have a yummy pannacotta.
As digestivi, Ashley serves her homemade nocino (walnut) and brugnolino (plum), liqueurs made on fruits and nuts soaked in 95 % alcohol. I ask where she buys the spirits: at the pharmacist, perhaps? ‘I get it at the hardware store,’ Ashley replies. ‘Same place we buy our chickens.’
The next morning, before sunrise, we’re poised in the center of Piobbico, cameras ready, waiting for the herd to enter the village. Then, before we know it, the cattle have raced past, leaving only dust in their wake. Incredibly, one cow stops for a second, posing. I’m so perplexed I forget to click. Then we run after, round the corner, up the hill.
Herding cows up to graze on lush mountain grass is an ancient tradition and the timing of the transumanza is important. The grass must be the right length, the temperature just so. Hiking up Monte Nerone takes 6 hours. Sadly, we have places to go, things to see, so we can’t follow for long.
The crying grape of Le Marche
We’re off to visit Giovanni Giusti and his family-run winery. Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is in focus, a grape indigenous to Marche since Roman times. Lacrima means tear, So melancholic, so romantic…
We’re given a tour of the cellars, then sit beneath olive trees next to his vineyard for a long, leisurely tasting. A few hours later, I’m certain I can taste the ancient origins of Lacrima, taste history, taste the tears. And for an afternoon, I’m in love – with the wine, with Giovanni, his family, Le Marche, with the world. But that’s another story.
Marco is our wine guide for the day. After years working in Australian vineyards, he has returned home to dabble at wine making and run winery tours. Clearly passionate about Le Marche, he is convinced the region has as much potential for food and wine tourism as Tuscany. Trouble is there’s no tourist infrastructure. Restaurants don’t even have menus in English, he says. Marche, it appears, has a communications problem.
Returning to La Tavola Marche, we’re in time for pizza night. Friends and neighbours stop by for this weekly tradition, where pizza after pizza is cooked in a large, outdoors wood-fired oven. Each has just a few ingredients, all fresh from the meat and cheese warehouse and the garden: salami, roasted pepperoni, prosciutto, mozzarella, ricotta, onions, and tomatoes.
I’m introduced to pizza bianca and it quickly becomes my favourite. This white pizza is easy to make, too – topped with thinly sliced potatoes, olive oil, ricotta, rocket salad, salt & pepper. That’s it! I may impress the kids yet (take that, microwave popcorn.)
‘All I want is to pass the cooking of this area on to others,’ says Jason. ‘The beautiful simplicity and the quality of the ingredients are what matters.’
He continues: ‘How I work now is fundamentally different from what I did earlier. Before, it was about transforming ingredients into something else. Here, the ego is taken out of cooking. It’s not about me, it’s about the tomato. Nature makes it perfectly. My job is simply to highlight its qualities, to do as little with it as possible. And cook with the seasons.’
Cured meats and cheeses
The next day it’s down to business. We visit Domenico Fusciani in the village Apecchio, meat and cheese artisan. I wouldn’t have found him in a million years. Not only because I have crap sense of direction, but there’s no sign, no adverts, nothing at all pointing to this foodie heaven. We shop for our cooking lesson and sample the goodies, along with wine. Never mind it being 10 am.
Back at Ca’ Camone, we pick veggies. Jason grows strawberries, rhubarb, herbs, beans, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, aubergine, courgette, celery, tomatoes and much more. The garden could be a full time job in itself, he tells us. As it is, he spends two hours every morning watering. So why not set up sprinklers? Turns out the plants must be watered at ground level. Sprinklers can ruin them. I suspect he also enjoys it.
Time to get serious
It’s time to chop and slice, and we learn how. With my technique – or lack thereof – I’m lucky I haven’t chopped off any fingers. We make a proper Italian meal. For antipasti, there’s fava-bean crostini, stuffed eggplant, oven-cooked lemons, farro (spelt) salad and courgette carpaccio.
For primo, we make tagliatelle with cherry tomatoes – so easy, I probably couldn’t burn it if I tried. Secondo is puntine di vitello (veal breast), another simple recipe with few ingredients: veal, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, salt & pepper, and a dash of white wine. For dolce, we have crostata, a jam tart.
Afterwards, we enjoy the fruits of our labour beneath clear skies. For hours, we eat and chat as the light slowly fades, leaving the stage to shooting stars and fireflies flitting across the bushes.
Would you like to try a cooking course in this timeless part of Italy? La Tavola Marche offers various courses throughout the year.
- Getting there: The nearest airport is in Ancona.
- Getting around: Hiring a car is the easiest and most flexible, but there are also busses. Ashley or Jason will pick you up at the bus station in Piobbico.
- Other interesting things in the neighbourhood? Just like San Gimignano in Tuscany and Assisi in Umbria, Le Marche has its own UNESCO World Heritage hilltop village, Urbino. As is to be expected in Le Marche (for now, anyway), Urbino is not overrun with visitors and advertising. Also, the province has ancient fishing villages, beautiful beaches, festivals, and gorgeously wild scenery.
Disclosure: I was a guest of La Tavola Marche. As ever and forever, all opinions are deliciously my own.