My Italy - Le Marche

‘Italian life prioritizes quality over quantity’

'Italian life prioritizes quality over quantity'
Ashley and Jason Bartner on their organic farm in Le Marche. Photo: Alessandro Moggi
When Ashley and Jason Bartner left New York to set up an organic farm and cooking school in rural Le Marche, they didn't speak Italian or know how to grow their own food. Ashley explains how they embraced the change and settled into the local community.

Where in America are you from and when did you move to Le Marche?

I am originally from Seattle and Jason is from Danville (outside of San Francisco). We met at college and then moved to New York, where we lived in Brooklyn for over eight years, before moving to the Italian countryside. In December 2007, a year and a half after our honeymoon and first trip to Italy, we moved into our farmhouse in Le Marche.

What inspired you to move to Italy and set up your own organic farm?

We were inspired by a life of quality versus quantity. We wanted to slow down in life and enjoy each day more, just as the Italians do. And more than anything we wanted to start a farm to become as self-sufficient as possible.

After almost 10 years in New York we were craving dirt and mud, getting our hands in the soil…That being said, we were both from the city and didn't know which way to plant a seed, but we were determined to learn!

Were there any difficulties in setting up your businesses?

Certainly the classic Italian bureaucracy – 'you must have this document before you can sign that one, but to get this one, you need another signed and stamped first'. Plus, we were not fluent in Italian at the time and stumbled through meetings at the bank, issues with the plumber and even ordering bread.

We also discovered how difficult it is to heat a 300-year-old stone farmhouse and keep the pipes from freezing.

Is there anything you wish you'd known about life in Italy before coming here?

No. It was all an adventure and we were ready for the challenge. I just wish my language skills had been stronger!

What is it like living in rural Italy after the busy life of New York?

A culture shock like that of "Northern Exposure" [an American TV series in which a New York physician is sent to practice in a small town in Alaska]. We had no TV or internet, no Chinese delivery or Mexican take-out. But we were open to the change. We knew there would be big differences and embraced them, never comparing this life to that of New York.

Instead of the conveniences of New York, we now live with seasons and love it – chopping wood to stay warm, planting a garden to feed us and interacting with the locals to become part of the community – all things that we never had in New York.

Was it easy to integrate into the community?

Surprisingly it was; we were looked at like orphans, abandoned by our families since we seemed so young to move here (26 years old)!

We did our best to participate in festivals, we delivered fresh baked apple pies to our neighbours and offered free English lessons in town. We were overwhelmed by the warm welcome we received from our village.

Which aspect of Italian life was most difficult to get used to?

The limited hours of operation and observed saint's days/holidays…I had no idea there were so many. I also wish we had planned better in the beginning so we wouldn't run out of food over a three-day holiday for a patron saint of potatoes!

Part of your work is promoting culinary tourism – what are the biggest differences between cooking here and in the States?

First of all, you will eat with the seasons. Most homes here have gardens and you only eat fruits and vegetables at the height of their season, unlike strawberries found year-round at the grocery store in the States. And the food you eat, and recipes found here, are local and I mean super-local.

Even the pasta differs greatly between the sea and mountains from Tuscany to Lombardy. And a huge difference is the pasta is not swimming in sauce and lasagna is delicate enough to make you weep. You can taste the diversity in Italian cooking by traveling 20km in the other direction.

So what's the best food you've had in Italy?

Spaghetti with vongole, cappelleti in brodo, gnocchi with white truffles, slow-cooked pork shank…and anything with fresh tomatoes from the garden!

I have what you call 'una buona forchetta', a hearty appetite, and can't pick just one dish. We live on a farm and run a cooking school, and I'm married to a chef – I eat well.

And aside from the food, why should people visit Le Marche?

The people. They are kind, welcoming and have a rich history they are passionate to share. The hilltop villages are idyllic for an afternoon drive, and you can arrive in time for an aperitivo at sunset.

There is Urbino with the Duke of Montefeltro's Palace and the rugged Appenines in the backdrop, to the East stretch soft hills and winding rivers that lead to the Adriatic Sea.

Le Marche is a place of beauty and still relatively traffic free. It is authentic, it feels unfussy and untouristy. The people speak in local dialect before they speak Italian, and rarely is an English word heard.

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