Nestled on a green hillside beneath a hilltop village in the Marche region of Italy, the agriturismo ‘La Scentella’ is the heartfelt creation of Roberto Ferretti.
“Today I would like to make an experience,” says Roberto, drawing his cupped hands towards each other in a gesture that seemed to encompass the whole world.
The day before we had approached La Scentella in the late afternoon, passing the lavender field, the old vineyard, and views of the stunning hilltop village of Petritoli on our left, with gnarled olive groves on our right. Descending a little way into the green valley we arrived at a golden-stone farmhouse catching the last of the evening sun.
This is the Val d’Aso, an area of Italy sometimes described as the Garden of Le Marche (Il Giardino Delle Marche) and the reason for this is immediately obvious. It is a valley of rich and diverse agriculture, decorated with 23 picture postcard hilltop villages, of which Petritoli is just one.
Forage and feast in Italy
We had barely arrived before we were ensconced at the huge kitchen table, getting involved with making Roberto’s famous apple and walnut cake and learning about Vino Cotto.
This dark brown liquid is clarified countryside – a delicate digestif and ingredient in many local recipes (including the apple cake). The remaining grape must is turned into Sapa, a sweet syrup that we drizzle on our cake. A healthy helping of olive oil also goes into the cake – later in the week we would visit the local olive press and see Roberto’s harvest turned into delicious green gold oil.
But first it was time to pile into the van and travel further up the Val d’Aso towards the mountains. This part of Le Marche melts into the Monte Sibillini Naitonal Park, an area of magnificent mountains crossed by ancient trails and rich in cultural history.
On the way we picked up Giovanni the truffle hunter and his canine partner. The Lagotto Romagnolo (named for the Romagna region of Italy) truffle dog with its thick and curly waterproof coat is an enthusiastic sniffer-out of these autumn treasures. Needless to say we all instantly fell in love with this intelligent and affectionate fellow and wanted to take him home but his heart lay firmly with Giovanni.
It was well after midday by now and when we dropped Giovanni at his home, his wife Anna invited us in for coffee. We crowded into her little kitchen and ‘coffee’ turned into a feast of homebaked bread, homegrown olive oil and the biggest, reddest, tastiest tomatoes you have ever seen. And coffee and wine, and Vino Cotto! With all due respect to Roberto’s cooking, we all thought we’d died and gone to heaven with this simple repast.
In the evening we feasted on the fruits of our ‘labours’, grating the white gold over the pasta we had freshly made, and enjoying a salad of wild greens foraged from the farmhouse garden. Federico Fellini once said that “life is a combination of magic and pasta,” and I think this is what he must have meant.
Gastronomic delights in the Val d’Aso
Another day we visited a local cheesemaker, and said hello to his cows and goats. Eros makes 25 different types of delicious cheese and we took our time choosing the constituents of an exquisite cheeseboard to be enjoyed with dinner that night.
This was enhanced by the wine offering brought by fellow guests from Tuscany. They just happen to run a 200-year-old family vineyard where they make completely unadulterated, beyond-organic, wine. The last bits of leftover cheese were delicious with breakfast.
The most informal of cooking classes just seem to happen naturally as we gather in the kitchen and discuss the results of our hunter gathering. Stir the sofrito, wash the chicory, roll out the pasta dough, and of course uncork the wine.
For wine lovers there is plenty of opportunity to visit vineyards and wineries. We stopped in at Fagato to select a crisp sparkling and a rich red to adorn our dinner table that night.
In summer meals are taken with views over the cherry orchard, in cooler months beside the open fire in the kitchen.
Le Marche is famous for the longer-than-average life expectancy of its inhabitants over several centuries, which has been scientifically linked to the wholesome vegetable-and-fruit-based diet. A culture of preserving agricultural and culinary traditions means that some of Italy’s best produce and food is to be found here.
His knowledge and respect for nature is inspiring. Where I looked at the ground and saw a weed, he saw a delicious green perfect for a soup or salad. No food waste here, just a passion for using what the earth gives us and consistent sustainability.
Roberto opens the door to foodie experiences of all kinds. From straight-off-the-boat seafood at a little dockside cafe on the coast to stalls piled high with seasonal fruit and local snack specialities in the town markets.
Historic urban landscapes of Le Marche
It’s not all about food. Only a short drive away are the cities of Fermo and Ascoli Piceno, awash with elegant piazzas and historic churches. The Marche region has been ruled by Romans, Goths, Venetians, Longobards and the Papal State, each leaving their mark.
I had the most stylish café macchiato of my life at the exquisite Café Meletti in Ascoli Piceno and had fun exploring the world’s second largest Roman-era water cisterns beneath the streets of Fermo on a guided tour.
That’s not forgetting a stroll to Petritoli, with its medieval palazzo, nineteenth century theatre, and civic tower with its spectacular view of fields, mountains and sea.
So you see, our truffle safari was only the beginning of our experience in the Garden of Le Marche in Italy. Roberto’s vision at La Scentella is to nurture an authentic tourism of relationship, where strangers arrive at his kitchen table and become friends. Good food, good people, good times. Life’s too short for anything less.
By Natasha von Geldern
Travel to Petritoli and the Val d’Aso via Ancona, the capital city of the Marche region of Italy. Reach Ancona by tain or plane and La Scentella is only an hour’s drive away. You can also fly into Bologna and drive three hours.
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