Our birthday celebrations continued when Aunt Lois offered to stay with the kids overnight (thanks for the perfect gift!). The easy part was taking her up on her offer. The hard part was deciding where to go.

We’d been intrigued by one of the regions of Italy that is relatively unknown and underpopulated but supposedly ruggedly beautiful with great food: Le Marche (translated as “the marshes”). It’s on the other side of the Appenine mountains from Lazio (the region where Rome is located), and runs to the Adriatic coast. Our interest was further piqued at a wine tasting a few weeks ago, where one of the highlights was one of Le Marche’s best varietal whites called Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, made from the Verdicchio grape.

The farmhouse.

Then we read about a Slow Food aguriturismo destination in Le Marche called La Tavola Marche. Aguriturism is when small farms open up as inns, serving food grown on site. This particular aguriturismo was appealing because the owners also teach cooking classes focused on the cuisine of the region.

We began our adventure with a quintessentially local experience– 20 minutes of tongue-clucking and exasperation from the employees at the car rental place that resulted in one of them emerging from the back room with a plastic Tupperware container containing 50 sets of car keys, all jumbled together! Of course, we received the wrong set, but by that time we were using the best of our rudimentary Italian to thank them profusely, apologize for the heat, wish them a good day, commiserate about the problems of daily life and, in the end, were kindly given a much nicer car than the one we reserved. (A little politeness goes a long way here!).

We drove north through part of Tuscany and most of Umbria, stopping in Città di Castello for a coffee. The small town is just north of Perugia, at the top of Umbria, and abuts the Appenine mountains. While wandering in search of our light lunch, we came across City Hall – a castle, hundreds of years old, that is still City Hall, replete with offices for business transactions and tax payments, and had a coffee at a charming bar. Walking back to the car, we passed a small bakery and after we ordered two biscotti, the owner took handfuls of each kind of cookie and put them into a bag for us. We explained that we only wanted two but he insisted we take them all and refused to accept any money for them. . .a gift from the bakery! After we left Città di Castello, we came back down the hills into Le Marche, and found ourselves in a wild mountainous countryside that looks nothing like the Mediterranean hillsides around Rome or the picture-perfect Tuscan and Umbrian hills.

The garden.

We drove up to the stone farmhouse that is La Tavola Marche, and were instantly entranced. The aguriturismo is owned by a charming young American couple, Ashley and Jason. We were presented with our menu: a selection of vegetable antipasti, fresh tagliattelli, and panna cotta, and started our four hour cooking class with glasses of their house-bottled wine.

We started with the panna cotta, flavored it with a little bit of lavender picked from the farm. Next we rolled out pasta sheets and later hand cut tagliattelli. We learned why eggs in Italy are never found in the refrigerated section of stores –they are so fresh that that is never necessary. There is a special grade of egg that is sold just for making fresh egg pasta!

Picking veggies for dinner.

As our pasta dried, we went out to the garden to pick the rest of our ingredients. Broccoli for the pasta, Ice Queen winter lettuce for the salad (which also contained walnuts they’d picked down the road), black cabbage to sauté, radicchio to braise for the bruschetta, carrots and celery to boil with the farro, and parsley that we used to make a salsa verde with salt-packed anchovies. During the course of food prep, we tasted honeys from the farmer down the street, and olive oils from the region.

Pasta sheets drying.

After we’d prepared everything other than the final cutting of the pasta, we sat down to enjoy the antipasti with our hosts and relatives/friends of theirs visiting from the US. Our hosts shared a story that really stuck with us because it captures the food culture and aesthetic in Italy. One evening, our host prepared a New England Clam Chowder for his neighbors. . .and they hated it. (We are learning that Italians are very forthright about food—when solicited, honest evaluations of a meal are offered). One problem that the Italians had with the soup was the mixing of the dairy and the seafood in the soup, which they found unappetizing. But more interesting to us was their criticism that it wasn’t clear what the dish was about—there were the clams, the pancetta. . . what, they asked the chef, were they supposed to be tasting? We love this anecdote because Italian food rarely has more than a few ingredients, is almost always seasonal, and will always feature one flavor that is presented in an unadulterated way. You are supposed to taste the clams, or the tomatoes, or the mushrooms. . .but ingredients don’t compete or combine. A successful dish here really presents and highlights a key ingredient’s flavor.

An Italian cooking class is also fun because the cooking is guided by perceptual cues, not instructions. It’s not “1 cup of this and 45 minutes at 300 degrees”. Rather, instructions are in the form of “add enough flour until the dough is no longer sticky,” or “cook it until the leaves begin to curl upwards” or “add pepper to suit your taste.” The cooks here really follows the changing texture and smell of the food. But it can be maddening for a novice cook to hear “add some of this and cook it until it looks done.”

Our meal and conversation went on into the night and we felt like we were hanging out in a friend’s home. It was sad to leave the next day. But we hit the road early enough to stop in Todi, a small hilltop town in Umbria that Italians seem to love and deem as one of their “most livable cities” – and here, that really means a lot! The town is full of medieval monuments and was gorgeous—every doorway, alley, terrace seemed to have some tasteful decorative flourish. But truth be told, our main reason for visiting was the rave review that our friends Anne and John gave to a small restaurant there called Antica Hostaria del la Valle (Via Augusto Ciuffelli, 19  tel: 075 8944848 ) that specializes in tartufo (truffle).

Neither of us were big truffle fans—the much celebrated flavor often seems too strong for us. But wow—this place really changed our view. We arrived in the small, beautiful restaurant in the midst of a huge rainstorm and were invited to sit down for lunch even before the restaurant opened. A brick arch traversed about six small wooden tables and two huge windows looked out onto the street alongside the dining room. The show was run by John Michael Paterson, who is host, waiter, chef, and busboy (he says that if he gets really busy, his wife comes in to help him). Our pastas were magnificent. We sampled a tweak on the Roman specialty cacio e pepe that featured fresh spaghetti, a local sheeps’ cheese, and delicate slices of truffle. Our other dish was a ravioli stuffed with spinach and chard and covered with a fruity olive oil and fresh truffle. The favors were woodsy, earthy, warm and definitely not overpowering. Despite the overlap in ingredients, each pasta dish featured a distinct flavor and feel. What really got us was the amazing aroma from each dish. . .the smell alone was almost enough of a meal.

We returned to a bit of chaos. . .because of the rain, the school had sent the children home early on the bus without informing us and, when we weren’t at the bus stop, had taken them back to the school (a needless 90 minute round trip for them, and then another hour for us by cab to collect them). Oy! But despite our return to reality, it was a fabulous get away.

–Jenny and Seth