Cooking in Italy

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.

On the road to Le Marche

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.

Slow food

La Tavola Marche

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.’

antipasti, cured meats and cheeses

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.

pear & pine nut salad

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.

spiedine and grilled polenta

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.’

La transumanza

La transumanza, Piobbico
Blurry photo, that’s what happens when a herd of cattle storms towards you.

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.

Giusti vineyards, Le Marche

Giusti vineyards, Le Marche

 

Giusti vineyards, Le Marche

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.

Pizza night at La Tavola Marche

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

Apecchio, Le Marche

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.

Fusciani salumi e formaggi, Apecchio, Le Marche

Fusciani salumi e formaggi, Apecchio, Le Marche Fusciani salumi e formaggi, Apecchio, Le Marche

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

La Tavola Marche, vegetable garden

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.

Cooking Italy

La Tavola Marche, cooking lesson - puntine di vitello (veal breast)

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.

La Tavola Marche, cooking lesson, cherry tomato sause for pasta

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.

Practicals

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.

37 Responses to “Cooking in Italy”

  1. Salika Jay 27 February 2014 0440 #

    Oh Italy. Love everything about there, especially the food. Would love to get some Italian cooking lessons.
    Salika Jay recently posted..Tenerife For Families: Top Attractions

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1503 #

      It’s a fun way to spend a few days.

  2. Muza-chan 27 February 2014 1056 #

    Delicious…
    Muza-chan recently posted..Japanese Yatai food stalls, travel tip

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1503 #

      Delicious is right.

  3. Corinne 27 February 2014 1149 #

    You’ve got my mouth watering and I plan to sign up as soon as I can fit it into my schedule. Love this post!
    Corinne recently posted..Palm Oil Plantations of Borneo

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1505 #

      You’ll have a fabulous time, I’m sure :)

  4. Agata 27 February 2014 1602 #

    This post gives a very good sense what Italian food is all about. Marche is amazing region. Much less touristic because the majority of people goes to Tuscany. Lack of crowds is a huge advantage, I think. I enjoyed my stay in Marche very much. I have fabulous memories from there: slow life, slow food, slow everything. Love it!
    Agata recently posted..Gallery: Tuscany and Liguria in spring

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1508 #

      Loved Marche.

  5. Leigh 28 February 2014 0003 #

    Sophie,
    You’re killing me. I’m starving – which should be easy to solve in Quebec City but I don’t think I’ll be finding any foods that look like they’ve come from a warm garden. And it’s freezing outside and I just want to eat exactly what you cooked without leaving my hotel room.

    This place looks like a little slice of heaven and surely after hours in a kitchen you can whip up some great meals when you get home and show your kids a thing or two. I’d LOVE to visit.
    Leigh recently posted..A Winter Visit to Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff National Park

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1509 #

      Hope you do visit :)

  6. Jeff Titelius 28 February 2014 0117 #

    I drooled over every single word of the is most delicious read! I would love to go to cooking school in Italy..how fortunate you are my friend! And those pics capture the tastes of Italy and bring them to life…perhaps a little too well? LOL! I loved this article and now pining to return to Italy even more!! Thank you.
    Jeff Titelius recently posted..Viking River Cruises to sail Bordeaux in March 2014 with new Chateaux, Rivers and Wine river cruise

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1510 #

      I think you’d enjoy this cooking course, Jeff :)

  7. Vera Marie Badertscher 28 February 2014 0318 #

    OH LE MARCHE! On our first trip to Italy we saw the big three cities, and took a week to drive through Le Marche, principally because we could find very little about it on line. I always tell people just what you did–no t-shirt shops and no tour buses. It is heavenly!!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1510 #

      So glad you like that out-of-the-way province, too.

  8. Mary {The World Is A Book} 28 February 2014 0702 #

    All these delicious food photos is torturing me at this late hour. What a great experience for you, Sophie. I’m almost inept in the kitchen and I’m sure my family would love for me to do this too. Loved seeing everything you prepared and it’s such an inspiration to try this soon.
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted..Journey to Herrenchiemsee: The Bavarian Versailles

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1511 #

      Glad I’m not the only one :)

  9. Mette 28 February 2014 1819 #

    Judging from the photos you seem to have learned a lot. Both about food and about cooking. Had to look Piobbico up on a map. How long did it take to get there from Ancona?
    Mette recently posted..Cinnamon swirl cake with nuts

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1514 #

      I came in from Umbria, but leaving, drove towards the coast and Ancona. If I remember correctly, it took about 1.5 hours. About 45 minutes inland from Fano.

  10. Lisa Goodmurphy 28 February 2014 2021 #

    Italian cooking lessons sound like a fine idea – although I’m fairly certain that my own cheeky daughters would declare them wasted on me as well! That white pizza looks absolutely delicious!!
    Lisa Goodmurphy recently posted..A Photo Tour of Québec’s Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1514 #

      Loved pizza bianca :)

  11. Jenna 1 March 2014 0135 #

    This is one region of Italy I’ve been wanting to visit. I love that the food is served on such beautiful Italian ceramics.
    Jenna recently posted..A Day in Nature at Point Reyes

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1515 #

      It’s a bit off the beaten track, for sure, but worth the effort.

  12. Cathy Sweeney 1 March 2014 1608 #

    Wonderful cooking experience in such a beautiful place. Of course, the food pics have my mouth watering, but the scenes of Le Marche have me a little teary-eyed remembering my time in Emilia-Romagna last year (another of Tuscany’s lesser known neighbors). Ah, Italia!
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Going Full Circle at Long Meadow Ranch

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1516 #

      Ah, indeed…

  13. Mike 2 March 2014 0142 #

    This is absolutely amazing, Sophie. I’m getting close (a few more years) to getting my world travels on and you just dialed me up another notch! Thank you, dear :)
    Mike recently posted..A German Pancake Recipe for Mike and Phoenix

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1516 #

      You’re welcome :)

  14. Freya 3 March 2014 2324 #

    I love Tuscany, it’s such a beautiful region. How I miss the Italian food and wine. What an amazing experience.
    Freya recently posted..Appalachian Trail Record Holder Jennifer Pharr Davis

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1517 #

      Tuscany is very beautiful, and so is Umbria and Marche – with gradually less tourist infrastructure (in a good way, I think) as you travel east.

  15. Cynthia Scarborough 4 March 2014 1900 #

    I should have read this after I had lunch! My mouth is drooling and my stomach is grumbling as I sit here at my desk. Marvelous article and great photos (well-excluding the cattle). Thanks for sharing!
    Cynthia Scarborough recently posted..Kayak Sport Fishing

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1518 #

      Hope you had an Italian lunch. :)

  16. Mary @ Green Global Travel 4 March 2014 2238 #

    Italy is a great place to be for food. Mmmmm! All of the food looks amazing. Thanks for sharing. :-)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1518 #

      :)

  17. mary jhon 5 March 2014 1020 #

    Wow mouth watering post !!! I love Italian food specially a Italian cheese :)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1545 #

      The cheeses…yum!

  18. My dream travel and food experience :-)

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 March 2014 1546 #

      You’d love it, Stephanie :)

  19. Alison 14 October 2014 1418 #

    Italy and the food are so beautiful. I’ve just returned from Bologna and your post is making me want to see more of this country.
    Alison recently posted..Chocolate Heaven

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