North of Rome and not far from the Adriatic, lies a little Italian town called Piobbico. Piobbico is known for its annual Festival of the Ugly held each year during, well, the week that I was in town. I was pleased to be away from the table in a small restaurant and bar in the tiny and lovely town when my companions were adjudged to be “insufficiently ugly” to win any awards. After a two day trek that took my traveling companion and me to Chicago, then on a detour to Paris, before we finally made it to Rome sans baggage, we were somewhat worried about being contenders.
Our destination was several miles out of Piobbico. Down a dusty but entirely scenic road sits a little farmhouse known over the years as Ca’Camone, which is home to an argritourismo known as La Tavola Marche. Le Marche (mar-Kay) is the region in Italy where Piobbico and La Tavola Marche are situated. It is mountainous and green and teeming with wild birds, mushrooms, truffles, and wild boar. La Tavola Marche is the dream made real of Jason and Ashley Bartner. They are two young Americans who, seeing no obstacles to forging a truly authentic life, left the U.S. and purchased this old farmhouse and the surrounding property which now is home to one of the most verdant, organic vegetable gardens I have ever had the privilege of seeing.
Jason studied at the French Culinary Institute in NYC and has worked in New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam and now Italy. The “farmhouse” has actually been renovated over the years and houses several apartments with private bedrooms and bathrooms, with kitchen facilities and dining areas. One could rent a suite and be completely self-sufficient. But I can’t imagine doing that when just downstairs is a warm and happy kitchen and wine bottle lined dining room manned by a professional chef and his equally compelling wife, Ashley. I never wanted for a thing. Treats and drinks magically appeared before us. Ashley floated in and out of our moments and ensured that glasses were never empty, all with smiles and laughter and joy. I do not say this lightly. I have never seen two people work so hard in pursuit of a dream, or in pursuit of providing excellence. I’m not sure when they slept, if ever. Ashley is a force in her own right, keeping up not only with her guests, with the web presence, the La Tavola Marche blog, and social media aspects of running an Italian inn, as well as writing and taking photos for several Italian magazines. We had plenty of fun things to talk about, I assure you.
Now let me tell you how I happened to be in Italy. Do you ever wonder if someone is going to do something nice for you on your birthday? My friend, Lori, facing a momentous birthday, decided to create something truly magical instead of waiting for it to happen. And I have no doubt that she would have been feted in style. But she chose instead to place herself in one of her favorite spaces, surround herself with friends, and spend a week celebrating. When a friend calls and says to you that she has secured an Italian farmhouse for a week, stocked it with fine wines and food, guaranteed the undivided attention of a professional chef and his lovely wife and business partner, scheduled tours of wineries, olive groves and specialty food stores…all if you can just manage to show up…you say YES. And that is how I got there. Through the unflinching and unending generosity of a friend, I pulled up a gravel road to an Italian paradise, and spent my time there laughing, cooking, learning, and celebrating.
I should have mentioned that along with the ugly persons’ festival, the village of Piobbico celebrates a polenta festival. Not a bad combination. We made our way into town just as evening was falling and walked into a small, quiet village awakened. There were a number of different groups cooking polenta, all in a traditional manner in large cauldrons over fires. Watching the men, all men it seems, stirring the giant pots with large wooden paddles was great fun. A lay person sees a big pot of mush. These gentlemen were watching with incredible care, adding a bit more of this or that til they had it exactly how they wanted it to be. There was polenta everywhere. One group made it with a basic tomato sauce, one with a ragu, and one with a rather stunning sauce teeming with snails. Yes, I ate snails.
I don’t typically eat snails, but here is an important point of making and epicurean journey. If you are going to sit around and refuse new and interesting foods, there is really no point in going. So I put on my big girl pants (elastic waisted under the circumstances) and dove into a bowl of polenta with a tomato and snail sauce. And, it was divine. Simply, elegantly, slowly, subtly divine. Piobbico is not a tourist town. The festivals draw rafts of people from nearby villages and towns, but we were amongst few tourists. But Jason and Ashley have ingratiated themselves with the community. They also dove in, they learned the language, they pay enormous respect to the traditional foodways of their community, they speak to the people who have been living and cooking traditionally in the area for generations, and they generally promote the agricultural and gastronomical potential of the entire region. Therefore, when anyone in town finds that you are with Jason and Ashley, you are well taken care of. They are a beautiful bridge between one world and another and we all benefited from their groundwork. Perhaps I had not eaten polenta and snails before. Perhaps this village had never been invaded by a troupe of loud, irreverent, happy Texas women (dual citizenship has been offered to our Brit and Bostonian friend). But we all came out ahead and had a fabulous time.
Here I should mention, as I continue to express my adoration for Jason and Ashley, that I got a flat tire on the way into town that night. Can you hear the tire flapping as I drive on the rim with Italian men yelling at us to pull over lest we damage the car permanently? In Italian that sounds the exact same as someone yelling “Don’t park there!” or “We love you beautiful American women!” So I kept driving my funny little fuel efficient vehicle to a suitable parking spot where yet another gentleman greeted me with the universal pantomime for “Look silly, your tire has exploded.”
After exploring some troubling options for dealing with the situation, we all decided that we needed to simply find Jason. Find him we did, celebrating in the little bar with other guests, music, wine and polenta. He took my keys, walked back to the car, raised it up, changed the tire, and walked us straight back to the bar for more polenta, wine, and music. Done and done. The next day, he took the damaged tire into town, had it repaired, and switched it back, good as new. This is the level of care we were experiencing, and there was no moment or issue that came up on our trip that wasn’t handled in this “done and done” fashion. Wonderful people.
Jason not only cooks, he teaches. He doesn’t show off his knowledge, he shares it. We all took cooking classes throughout the week ranging from full meals to antipasta to pizza. My full meal cooking class included a homemade chicken and veal stock with peasant “noodles” made from bread crumbs and eggs (pasatelli in brodo), an exceptional lentil salad, an eggplant and fresh mozzarella dish served with a pepper mix straight from the garden, hard eggs with a salsa verde, veal layered with garlic and potatoes and herbs, and peaches and nectarines poached in wine and served with sweetened mascarpone cheese. He taught us all of these dishes in the space of four hours and made it look easy. He used fresh ingredients, the seasonal bounty of the garden, and traditional methods. It was a beautiful meal. Four of us cooked this feast and all of us devoured it. And, what’s more, it was a joyful process, there was even some dancing and singing in the kitchen, and prosecco throughout the hours.
We signed up for a wine and food tour one of the days, run by a charming Italian named Marco. He took us to the coast and then up into the hills to the Luigi Giusti Winery. We were greeted warmly by Giovanni Giusti himself and shown the vines and the equipment and the olive trees. There were men in the vineyard harvesting grapes into great big crates and taking them straight up to the winery to be pressed. We were treated like honored guests. A table was set for us, with meats and cheeses and bottles of all of their favorite offerings. The crowd favorite, the sentimental favorite to be sure was the white called Di Ele, and on the back of each bottle it reads, “Dedicato al Elena, mia moglie. L’amore della mi vita.” Elena was there with us, as well. She works alongside her husband as they create a number of lovely wines and sparkling wines, some of which are featured stateside by the likes of Mario Batali in his restaurants. The grapes are primarily Lacrima. They are brought up to the work area with thrilled bees buzzing about happily, turned into a de-stemming and crushing device, and they begin their journey to the bottle. The funny thing is that in Italy, wine is as much a part of life as the food or the air. One of the men came in from the vines to fill a plastic bottle full of wine for the workers to have with their lunch, and a neighbor came along to fill a big glass jug full of one of the wines to take home to his dinner table. Yet they are also bottled beautifully, and sent around the world. Giusti is a family business, cared for and tended with passion by the family, and though not a drop touched my lips, I was intoxicated by the smells and the sights of this beautiful place, and charmed by the people who work there. And my friends, after careful and thorough tastings, assure me that the wine was absolutely lovely.
Marco then carted us off to a tiny village called Cartoceto where we pulled off to the side of the road to see the quaintest little food shop I’ve ever been to. We were ushered into the Gastronomia Beltrami and saw that a table had been set for us, wines selected, cheeses cut and jars of homemade jams opened. We were, again, made to feel like family. Here, we sat to eat six or so cheese samples ranging from the freshest sheep cheese topped with pomegranate seeds to the strong and most assertive. The cheeses are aged in caves, just up the road and tended to by the patriarch of the clan, Vittorio Beltrami. But mother, Elide, and daughter, Christiana, worked the shop and served us a beautiful tagliatelli with truffle oil and homemade lasagna. And, in a charming end to the day, they served Lori ‘s birthday cake and toasted us with a sweet wine served from their grandmothers crystal. We are not the first to notice the charms of this sweet shop, as Lydia Bastianich devotes several paragraphs to the family in one of her books.
Back to La Tavola Marche! This was birthday night. Jason and Ashley had been cooking and preparing all day in our absence for a feast and party that was truly wonderful. A few napped, but my friend Jan headed to the kitchen to frost a vanilla birthday cake that was layered with lemon curd and enrobed with butter-cream. In a nod to the hour, Jan piled the cake high with fresh flowers plucked from the gardens by our British companion Annabelle, instead of piping roses. It was stunning. Jan had traveled all the way from Texas with cake pans and icing tips and a cake stand to make sure that our lady of honor had a perfect cake, and she did. There were many things to note about the meal that Jason prepared for us, but let me not cloud the issue too much. We were served pumpkin soup with mussels. The pasta course was a white lasagna made with porcini and truffles in a cream sauce. It was one of the finest dishes of any sort that I have ever had the pleasure of eating. It was followed by perfectly prepared lamb…perfectly prepared lamb. Spot on. Bravo chef. But he doesn’t like it when we call him “chef” because he is Jason. But it is difficult to not throw honorifics about after a meal like that.
We celebrated our friend. We traded “sussies” all week and brought offerings to Lori, none of which could compare to the gift she had given to us. But we honored her and celebrated her beautiful life. It is quite a thing to say of a woman that when she gave me this adventure in Italy, it was the least of her gifts to me over the short period of time that I have known her. She lives in an enviable way that has nothing to do with means. She works tirelessly for others, she is a mentor, she is a great mother and a beloved wife. And she has introduced me to some of the finest women I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. WE CELEBRATED HER!
We continued our week with more cooking classes. I have a new favorite pizza dough recipe, now I just need an outdoor fire-belching oven to play with. I ate tomatoes straight off the vine. I dipped my toes in the mineral water pool, I napped. I ate yet another meal which I will not soon forget, a tagliatelle bolgnese, in town at a sweet little restaurant. God knows I love a simple, but beautifully prepared ragu on homemade pasta (…she says as though that ever happens in her real life).
I have not listed the women with whom I traveled because, believe it or not, not all people like to have their lives splashed across the ether. This means I have also kept some of my favorite photos to myself as well. But I hope with what remains you are able to get a feel for this special agritourismo, La Tavolo Marche, and this lovely region of Italy. It is really somewhat untouched by tourists, which makes it seem all the more of an adventure. Jason and Ashley rent out their apartments in the farmhouse throughout the Summer and during much of Spring and Autumn. You can follow them on their website, on Facebook and on Twitter. It makes Italy seem but a click away. Plus, they share recipes and photos that will make you feel like you also were born to leave this world behind and spend your life cooking and gardening in Le Marche.