‘Italian life prioritizes quality over quantity’

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.

'Italian life prioritizes quality over quantity'
Ashley and Jason Bartner on their organic farm in Le Marche. Photo: Alessandro Moggi

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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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.