The region of Le Marche in Italy lies slightly off the tourist map, but you’ll be rewarded with attractive hilltop medieval towns and traditional artisan products writes Rupert Parker
Marche is a land of churches and fortified towns, a green countryside of rolling hills and sloping vineyards, with fertile fields in the valleys. As a result you’ll eat and drink well here, but it’s also a place where artisan traditions have survived, many going back to the middle ages or further. Crafts are not relegated to museums, although there are plenty of those, but survive in their places of origin, often in tiny workshops.
The secrets of paper making were probably brought here by the Arabs from Spain, who learnt the art from the Chinese. Fabriano refined the product by sizing the fibres with animal glue to make it more durable, and invented the watermark, ideal for secure documents and banknotes. In the middle ages there were over 40 mills producing paper and the process was industrialised in the late 18th century. Inside the Paper & Watermark Museum, they’ve got the machinery working again so you can see the various stages of manufacture.
The factories in Fabriano still supply Italy with most of its paper but Sandor Tiberi has set up his own workshop producing artisan handmade paper using 700 year old techniques. It’s a boutique operation and he reckons there’s ample demand for his quality product. People want something personalised, he says, and he’ll customise your writing paper with your own watermark and special surfaces. In his studio, there’s also a display of his artworks, which imbed different materials in the paper to create interesting textured reliefs.
In the small rural town of Montappone, hats have been manufactured since the 17th century. Originally they were made by hand from straw but traditional handicrafts have now been converted into semi-industrial production. 45 companies still exist here and in six neighbouring towns, supplying 70% of the Italian market and exporting all over the world.
It’s worth visiting the small Museum of Hats in Montappone which illustrates the stages of making straw hats by hand, including picking, plaiting, weaving and sewing. There’s also a large collection of traditional and innovative hats, including the last hat worn by Italian film director Federico Fellini. Some factories provide guided tours and sell their product at their outlet shops. Ferruccio Vecchi, in nearby Massa Fermana, exports to Japan and the USA and their hats are particularly stylish.
Lace making has been a tradition in Offida since the 14th century and women still sit outside their houses making the stuff on a cushion on their knees. Different cotton threads are wound on bobbins (Tombola in Italian) and, by braiding and twisting these, they create the intricate patterns we know as bobbin lace. You can buy the lace direct from the women or from small shops in the town.
As you’d expect there’s also a museum here located inside the nineteenth-century Palazzo de Castellotti. It tells the history of lace and displays examples both ancient and modern. These come from both the museum collection and from private citizens who’ve temporarily loaned their pieces. A highlight is a dress designed by Antonio Berardi and worn by model Naomi Campbell at the London Fashion Week in 1997.
Sardinian-born Renzo Frau started making armchairs in Turin in 1912 and his company Poltrona Frau has been making distinctive leather seating ever since. They moved to Tolentino in the early 1960’s and. as well as furniture for the home and office, they’ve designed leather car interiors for Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Ferrari and Maserati. In 2002, to celebrate their 80th anniversary they created red leather seating and pillions for a special edition of Moto Guzzi’s California motorcycle.
A part of the factory has been transformed into a stylish museum with examples of their chairs and sofas from the beginning to the present day. It’s only when you see clips from famous movies featuring their products that you realise their furniture is so iconic. Many famous halls and auditoriums, including Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, feature Poltrona Frau seating. Best of all is the Ferrari California sports car, with bright red leather upholstery.
In a tiny factory in Campofilone, Marilungo Giovanbattista has managed to retain the essentials of egg pasta production, copied from the old women of the village. He starts with non GMO durum wheat, from Marche, and extracts the semolina in a local mill using only the central part of the grain. This gives the flour a higher protein content and it’s mixed with free range eggs, to form a dough that is 40% egg. After shaping into the various pasta shapes, it’s dried for 24 hours at around 36 C. What makes his pasta special is that the typical industrial product has only 20% egg content and is dried for a shorter time at a higher temperature.
In his kitchen I get to sample his Maccheroncini di Campofilone, a type of long thin spaghetti. What’s interesting is that the dried pasta only needs to cook for two minutes in salted water before he serves it with his mother’s meat sauce. Of course it’s delicious and he tells me that it’s also very healthy – too many stomach problems can be traced to eating cheap pasta.
At around 1000 m, in the heart of Sibillini Mountains, the Azienda Agricola Scolastici has been making cheese since 1995. Their sheep graze on land near the medieval sanctuary of Macereto and the farm is 100% organic. Their cheeses are all Pecorino, apart from the Ricotta which is made from the whey. Their range includes cheese aged in hay, washed in merlot, flavoured with lemon or smoked. My favourite, which really blows your mouth off, is their 12 month Pecorino made from raw milk. Worth a detour, as they say, and it will taste even better when you get it back home.
Aniseed arrived in Castignano from the Middle East, probably brought back by soldiers returning from the crusades. The seeds have a powerful aroma and a distinctive flavour due to the high concentration of anethol, a result of the local microclimate, with its many hours of sunshine and fresh sea breezes. It’s known as “Green Gold” and, after many decades of neglect, it’s thriving again. You’ll find it in the dry Mistrà Varnelli (a distillate of alcohol, aniseed, herbs and fruits), and also in the sweeter Anisetta Meletti, perfect with coffee. They even make tea out of it, and add it to craft beer and of course, it’s used to flavour many traditional dishes. Castignano’s annual Anis Festival runs from 31 July to 2 August.
Marchese del Grillo Hotel in Fabriano offers 4* luxury in a converted palace, complete with frescoes in the rooms.
Borgo Lanciano in Castelraimondo also has 4*, and the rooms have been tastefully decorated.
Palazzo Riccucci is in the heart of the medieval centre of Montappone.
Hotel Boutique Magnolia Montefiore dell’Aso is handy for Campofilone.
Oasi Biologica di Montedinove is an organic B&B near Castignano.
Ristorante Teta, in Castignano, serves aniseed flavoured dishes.
Visit Marche has information about the region.
Easyjet flies from Gatwick to Bologna.
Gatwick Express is the quickest way to get to the airport.