By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
Florence is visited by throngs of tourists, no matter what the season. Tuscany may seem more ‘authentic’, but the truth is, in summer, there are more Americans there than Italians. You can barely move for all the people in Venice, and barely see the sea, thanks to the hideous cruise ships that block the views. So, where is there to go in Italy that’s still relatively untouched?
I’d recommend Le Marche. This is a region located in the centre of the boot-shaped country that’s often neglected by tourists, but which conceals an overwhelming beauty, a warm-hearted population and a variety of food-and-farm based activities that allow visitors to learn why Italian food is so exceptional: basically, it comes down to traditional ingredients grown with love.
Montelparo where our story begins. This picturesque village has recently rediscovered ancient historical finds related to the Piceno settlements of the 8th century BC. The town probably owes its name to a Lombard leader who built a castle in the early Middle Ages, which was then passed on to the monks of the Abbey of Farfa. The holy men there built several churches in this minuscule municipality, which are now a major highlight for tourists, along with the Museum of Ancient Itinerant Crafts featuring a variety of original bicycle-energy generators that were used as work tools, to power the ice-cream maker, the cobbler, the barber, the milkman and many more ancient craftsmen.
Madeline and Tim Jones fell in love with Montelparo, and are today the owners of the Boutique Hotel Leone set in the heart of the town. This English couple will make your stay feel luxuriously homey through their gracious savoir-faire and impeccable organisation. After many years spent as bankers in London, they moved to Singapore, where Tim started to focus on one of his true passions: cooking, whilst Madeline continued in investment banking as Regional Head of Asia for a German bank. But they always dreamt of running a sustainable resort in Italy. Madeline’s business management skills and Tim’s flair for design and construction (as well as his culinary artistry, of course), allowed them to glorify the former splendour of Hotel Leone.
The building’s heritage goes all the way back to 1501, when it was known as Palazzo Pellei, named after an aristocratic family of the time. An upper floor was added during the 20th century, and the property was transformed into a hotel known as Taverna del Leone. However, it closed during the eighties, when the owner lost his wife and no longer wanted to run the business on his own. As Madeline describes: “Intriguingly, when the business closed to its last customers it become frozen in time. Everything was left exactly where it was, from the furniture right down to the cutlery on the table-tops were all left undisturbed. Some items were wrapped in cling-film to preserve them from the passage of time.”
When Madeline & Tim came across Hotel Leone it was love at first sight, and they were presented with the opportunity to live a more rustic life in this small town. Madeline and Tim gave new vitality to this property, restoring original pieces with the help of a local artisans and transforming the crumbling palace into a sustainably luxurious boutique hotel.
The restoration work was carried out meticulously, and the outstanding results were rewarded with a Gold level in Trip Advisor’s Green Leaders Awards. From restoring the old stone walls to tiling, furnishing and decorating, every step of the way involved environmentally-friendly choices. As Tim bragged to me, the hotel uses a 10kW solar electricity generation system that meets 120% of the hotel needs over a year. The solar hot water system provides 1600 litres of hot water in mid-summer and the rainwater collection system has 12,000 litres of capacity, that is used to water the plants around the premises.
Double glazing makes this property even more energy efficient, and wood was ‘borrowed’ from the ceiling in order to restore the original wood floors. Hotel Leone is adamant about recycling everything, from plastic, to food waste, and ceiling fans replace air conditioners. Rooms are fitted with intelligent entry systems that cuts power supply to the room three minutes after leaving, and of course, guests can opt in or out of laundry and towel changing.
The former 19 rooms and two bathrooms of the hotel have been transformed into 8 antique-furnished rooms, each with its own spacious bathroom. Tim’s passion for Art-Deco is beautifully demonstrated in the reception and bar areas – particularly in The Empire Bar, where guests can indulge in afternoon tea with scones and fresh pastries or sip their favourite cocktail whilst gazing over the mesmeric landscape of Le Marche. Other common areas feature enthralling art and decorative pieces that marry the Eastern and Western hemispheres.
This East-meets-West theme is also reflected in the menu here. Having trained at the Sunrice Global Chef Academy in Singapore, working alongside international guest chefs including 3 starred Michelin Chef Christian Bau, he gained valuable experience at the 5* Sentosa Resort and Spa on Sentosa Island. This practice was channeled into sparking his own unique cuisine to life – it merges the natural flavours and traditions from Le Marche with the exoticism of China and India.
The native cuisine in the Le Marche area is rich and diverse and includes, for example: lentils from Casteluccio, game, nuts, herbs, mushrooms and of course, truffles! The gastronomical creations I tasted over the course of a weekend included: slow braised venison with prunes and Marsala wine on curried lentil dahl, topped with a potato rosti and served with a raspberry balsamic reduction; scallop and prawn panciotti in a creamy mushroom and Marsala wine sauce; grilled duck breast served on a bed of creamed cabbage, pancetta, walnut and thyme with a cardamon caramelised pear; chocolate fondant with vanilla ice-cream; salad of sous vide duck, cooked with lavender with grilled asparagus, poached egg and rocket leaves, served with a honey mustard balsamic dressing; ‘Priests’ cap’ pasta of pumpkin in a gorgonzola sauce with nutmeg; slow braised lamb shank with a carrot and cannelloni bean puree and a spicy mint dressing; and British cheesecake with a twist of lime. It may not all be vegan friendly, but at least it was all locally sourced, and mainly organic!
Agro Tourism Le Marche – And More
Whilst many would be happy here to simply swim, walk, eat and read, I felt a bit more adventurous and asked my hosts what I could do in the region. These are but a few of the agro tourism Le Marche activities I embarked on.
Tomato Farm: Azienda Agricola Mercuri Francesca
This trip was on my day of departure and came about serendipitously. I was having breakfast and was struck by the deliciousness of the yellow tomatoes on my plate. I asked Tim where they came from, and he directed me to the Azienda Agricola Mercuri Francesca farm, where a young agro-entrepreneur called Umberto chaperoned me around his crops. He told me how he began the agro-activity with his brother Fabio, since the land belonging to his mother Francesca allowed them to cultivate the crops they were trying to save from extinction. Umberto also initiated an exchange of seeds with other local growers to create a network that would allow certain rare species of fruits and vegetables to be cultivated and shared by more farmers. At his farm, I admired and tasted black, yellow, orange, round, oval, pear and pumpkin shaped tomatoes.
Olive Oil Farm: Antico Frantoio Alessandrini
Outside the walls of the evocative Castle of Moresco, named one of the “most beautiful villages in Italy,” you’ll find the Antico Frantoio Alessandrini. Here, only the best olives are processed with large granite millstones, as the ancient tradition of the oil masters demands. What distinguishes this oil mill from others is that it uses old fashioned machines that work with a cold pressing system. This makes it possible to obtain an oil with an average temperature of about 23 C° with a very low maximum acidity, a fruity taste and the scent of freshly picked fruit.
Dairy Farm: Fontegranne
Contrary to cruel, intensive dairy farms where there are zero-grazing means to feed cattle with pasture plants, at Fontegranne all the cows and goats graze at ease, their little ones are tended with care, and milk is extracted naturally – never with machines. Furthermore, the ethical dairy farm chooses a humanitarian activity eac hyear to be financed with its program called “Cheese for Peace, project interchange between peoples.” My experience at Fontegranne was delightful since, after visiting the grounds and enjoying a breakfast with their special products, I had the rare chance of observing how Mozzarella is made. It takes over an hour of hard work by owner Eros Scarafoni – with the help of a kneading machine – to create a cheese that’s truly remarkable.
Vineyard and Wine Shop: Le Canà
Le Canà refers to the sluice in the wooden containers where winemakers used to grapes used to stomp grapes. I was shown how the geography at this winery, located between the sea and mountains, is characterised by a breeze that helps to keep the air dry and prevent problems with fungi or mould. In 2014, the siblings who run this place made their first bottle, and today they produce a variety of reds and whites, all aged in oak barrels from the French Loire region, well-known to make wine taste better. They truly preserve the “terroire” and fruitiness of their grapes, especially with my favourite: the Montepulciano.
In Monte Rinaldo lies the La Cuma archaeological site which consists of a sanctuary from the Hellenistic period and numerous remains from the Roman era. The architectural decorations belonging to the sanctuary are kept in the local museum (Museo Civico Archeologico di Monte Rinado), which used to be a church. Today this historical place is being revitalised with cultural activities that include music concerts or classical theatrical re-enactments, such as of the Iliad. Children around the area can play the role of young archeologists in some ancient sites dotted around the area.
The Local Co-Op: Tu.ris.marche
Madeline & Tim are as kind-hearted with their guests as much as with their neighbours. In fact, most of my sightseeing experiences were organised in collaboration with the hotel and, a cooperative launched by Andrea Marsili, Danilo Federici and Francesco Marinucci. Since 2014, the trio has created synergies with locals to allow visitors to discover the historical, cultural, and environmental heritage of Le Marche. Next time I’m in the region, I will be sure to try some grape stomping and the truffle hunting!
Overall, it was a wonderful stay, exploring a little known part of Italy whilst learning more about its gastronomic traditions. Given that most people living in cities today rush to a supermarket to buy ready-made meals they zap in a microwave, an agrotourism journey to Le Marche could literally be a life-changing experience.