When American newlywed Ashley Bartner visited Italy on honeymoon in the spring of 2006, her life was about to change more than she ever expected.
Back then Bartner, now 32, was a public relations director for a health club and her husband, Jason, 33, a professional chef. The couple had spent eight years living in New York before marrying, but were at a crossroads in their lives.
“Something really resonated for us in Italy, and we felt immediately at home. We had been thinking of going back to the West Coast [of the US] but we were taken aback by the quality, freshness and simplicity of the food in Italy,” says Ashley Bartner, who grew up in Seattle. “We knew that our future was there.”
By December 2007 Bartner and her husband were living in a rambling, 500-year-old stone farmhouse in Le Marche, a region of Italy squeezed between Umbria and the Adriatic Sea, “with the paperwork all done”, says Bartner, but still with scant knowledge of Italian.
Their business plan was to open a cooking school, capitalising on Jason’s skills in the kitchen – or, rather, slightly reinventing them, as the San Franciscan was a classically-trained chef in the French tradition.
The Bartners now run their cooking school – La Tavola Marche – at their farmhouse, about 12km from Piobbico, a village of about 2,100 people. The property, which the couple rent on a long lease, was previously run as an agriturismo, a farm guest house serving food that was mostly produced on the premises, or at least locally.
“Even though the property previously had a licence to be operated as an agriturismo, we had to reapply for permission,” says Bartner, who looks after the business side of the operation, while her husband leads the cooking classes. “The system is pretty complicated. We charge a lower VAT rate than a regular hotel, but there are also tax breaks for starting a business if you are under 30, and if you are a woman. Even the number of pigs you have on the farm contributes to your tax credit.”
Bartner never considered setting up in better-known Tuscany or Umbria, deciding to move to Le Marche, a region with relatively few expats and where they would, as Bartner says, feel less “crowded out”. And although Bartner had a nest-egg to invest, accessing home financing in Italy as a foreigner proved too complicated. A long lease was the next-best solution (Italy’s continuing property slump has since convinced her that this was a blessing in disguise).
In her first winter at Piobbico, Bartner was recommended the services of a commercialista, a business consultant who acts as a guide through the maze of Italian bureaucracy and tax planning, plus lends a hand as a general “fixer”.
“[He] is a kind man who took an interest in our life stories from the very beginning,” says Bartner. In a diversion from his usual responsibilities, Bartner’s commercialista helped organise an Easter lunch at the farm with a group of friends, one of whom wrote a feature in an Italian women’s magazine, sparking a wave of interest and bookings.
“The result was that in the first year we were full of Italian guests. It boosted our confidence, but there was a steep learning curve,” recalls Bartner. “Jason had to work hard to create dishes that were the equal of what [local] people might serve at home.”
Although the farm is just 45 minutes’ drive from the sea, locals consume little fish, apart from a small amount of dried cod and the occasional river trout. This verdant, mountainous region – the Bartners’ home nestles in a valley of the Apennines – is famous for its truffles, lentils, farro (a grain-based staple) and hearty dishes such as tagliatelle with wild boar sauce, and passatelli, a pasta made from breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese and eggs, served in broth.
Bartner has also experimented in the kitchen, for instance, using the lavender growing around the swimming pool to flavour shortbread.
“We always believed we could make a strong connection with a place through its food. But learning to cook like the locals was also a sign of respect, I think, which paid dividends. The funniest thing was the amazement of male guests when they saw Jason cook dishes like their grandmothers used to make,” says Bartner.
Trading the cosmopolitan bustle of Manhattan for Italian countryside meant swapping movies and nights out at the theatre for more prosaic pursuits, such as bingo, Italian-style.
“Last Christmas the town organised a bingo session in the high-school canteen,” says Bartner. “It seemed that half of the locals turned out for the occasion, and to my amazement I won one of the big prizes. Usually winners get a prosciutto, but I won an iPad. The funny thing was the locals were still talking about it weeks later. And when Jason went to the next big town for some supplies, he was stopped in the street, and quizzed about it.”
With no opportunities for one-stop shopping close at hand, getting produce and raw materials often means building up relationships.
“The first time the local butcher sold us some meat, he was full of questions about what we were going to do with it. He seemed to want to run some checks before he handed it over,” recalls Bartner.
And whereas in Manhattan when a restaurant closes, equipment and utensils will be sold off almost immediately, in rural Italy people hold on to their possessions for longer. That reality, coupled with long waits for spare parts and maintenance, meant that Bartner had to use a cigarette lighter to fire up the oven during the first year on the farm.
For the most part Bartner lives life at a relaxed pace, but hers is not a story that fits neatly in the model of someone who moves from the city to the countryside to enjoy more leisure time: “We’re just too busy with our students and guests for that to be the case,” says Bartner.
“We hadn’t really seen ourselves as entrepreneurs before we set up the cooking school,” she adds. “We love what we do but now we sometimes find ourselves wondering at night what could be next.”
● Beautiful, unspoilt countryside
● Fine food and drink
● Reliably hot and sunny summer weather
● Housing slump shows no signs of recovery
● Difficult to get around without a car
● Limited high-speed internet access in isolated areas
What you can buy for …
€100,000 A two-bedroom village house in an inland location in Le Marche, needing full renovation
€1m A modern, five-bedroom detached home with a swimming pool in a coastal resort or in the mountains