La Tavola Marche, Le Marche, Italy
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Yvonne Gordon visits an eco-friendly inn, farm and cooking school in Le Marche region in central Italy.
A 4am start wasn’t what I was planning for the first morning at La Tavola Marche but when our hosts tell us that we can help the locals with Transumanza, the annual moving of the cows from the farms to the mountains for the summer, it sounds too interesting to pass up. So, after a robust pre-dawn coffee in the farmhouse kitchen, we are soon helping to move the cows through Piobbico village and up the hill. The Italian bovines run from our cameras and tripods like frightened royals and we don’t get any decent photos, but I like to think we helped quicken the pace on their six-hour hike, getting them to the lush mountain grass sooner.
This is life at La Tavola Marche, an agriturismo in the beautiful and unspoilt Le Marche region in Italy, between the Apennines and the Adriatic coast. Getting involved in local activities and traditions is exactly what the owners, Ashley and Jason Bartner, have done since they moved here from the US four years ago, immersing themselves in the local culture and language.
La Tavola Marche is an organic farm, inn and cooking school on 250 acres of hilly farmland. The 300-year-old stone farmhouse has five apartments with wood-beam ceilings and fireplaces, all in a peaceful rustic setting. There’s a sulphur spring and an outdoor pool, all surrounded by trees, plants and lots of birds.
Guests here can enjoy all sorts of foodie activities, from picking fruit and vegetables and feeding the hens, to visiting local artisan bakers or winemakers, taking cooking classes, eating five-course feasts, or just relaxing by the pool and cooking for themselves at their own pace. The hosts aim to take guests away from regimented tours, crowds, and outlet shops and connect them with the land, food and people of the area.
They arrange a wine tour for us, to visit a family-run winery and learn all about the Lacrima grape which is unique to the area, followed by an outdoor wine tasting in the vineyard. We visit a honey producer to see the bee hives and how honey is taken from the honeycombs. We also stop at the historic hilltop town Ostra, and see the tiny but exquisite Teatro La Victoria. The locals are setting up for an outdoor music festival that evening in the piazza and it strikes me how un-touristy it is.
Later, back at La Tavola it’s pizza night and we gather to watch chef Jason cook tasty pizzas in the outdoor wood-fired oven. The oven is just one of the inn’s eco-friendly aspects – water and radiators are heated through a heat exchange system using solar panels and fireplaces also used for heating and for cooking. The owners encourage a ‘zero-km diet’ – flour for bread and pasta is milled from the fields along the road, eggs are from the chickens and extra fruit and vegetables are preserved in jars for the winter or traded with neighbours for other produce. The main crop grown on the farm is alfalfa, which they trade with a local farmer for wood and manure. No pesticides are used in the vegetable garden and it’s all tilled by hand. All water comes from an adjacent spring, lights are on timers and laundry is line-dried. Finally, waste is recycled or composted.
The next morning, Jason takes us to an artisanal food supplier to sample speciality meats and cheeses sourced from the area. We later join Jason to shop for the cooking class – at the vegetable patch below the house. Here we pick broad beans, lettuce, courgettes, celery, aubergines and herbs, and we see potatoes, cucumber, strawberries, tomatoes and rhubarb thriving away.
In the ‘farm to fork’ cooking class, the emphasis is taking the best seasonal ingredients and preparing them with traditional, local recipes. “All I want to do is carry on the traditional cooking of the area, the beautiful simplicity and quality of ingredients,” says Jason, who has worked in top restaurants in New York and San Francisco but prefers Italian-style slow food and eating with the seasons. “We take three or four simple ingredients and we do as little with them as possible.”
He teaches us knife skills so that we chop correctly and, as we work our way through the menu, preparing antipasti (starters) such as broad bean crostini, stuffed aubergine and courgette carpaccio, and mains of homemade tagliatelle and roast veal, we learn how to balance flavours and ‘wake things up’ with seasoning.
After the class, we all sit down to eat our efforts at a big outdoor table, lit by lanterns as it grows dark and thousands of starsoverhead come into view. Later we watch fireflies flash around in the dark before sleeping soundly, not even woken by the rooster next morning.
How to get there
Piobbico is just over 100km from both Rimini and Ancona, on the Adriatic coast and the agriturismo is a further 6km. Or take the train from London to Milan or train to Bologna, then to Pesaro by train and from there, a bus to the village of Piobbico. Alternatively take the train from London to Rome where there are direct trains and buses (273km away) to Città di Castello, 12km from the farm.
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