Watching What We Eat in Italy


Despite the headline, I’m not about to tell how to stay slim in the gastronomic superpower that is Italy. Rather, this is a reflection on what my wife and I see from our home in le Marche every day. We overlook lush valleys where much of what we eat is grown.

Perched on the edge of an hilltop town founded by an ancient order of Franciscan monks in the ninth century, the compact village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano is enclosed by a high wall built to fend off invasions by rampaging Saracens. Those monks — known as the Farfa — had seen their villages sacked and burned and their leaders murdered by Saracens in their original towns north of Rome.

One year, in anticipation of yet another terrible attack, they packed all their religious relics onto donkeys and trudged through the mountains to this spot, in the Marche region of east-central Italy, and built a new town — this time on high ground and fortified. More than a thousand years later, some businesses in town have “Farfa” in their names.

The original house on our property lies beneath us — a stone-lined arrangement of rooms and passageways with an ancient fireplace and a large basin for butchering hogs. Small windows covered by iron bars look towards the Adriatic Sea. From those windows a guard would notice the sails of invaders in the distance, with plenty of time to prepare for battle before the vessels arrived. Fortunately, no Saracen horde ever invaded this part of the peninsula. But hundreds of similar walled hilltowns exist, intact, to this day. I have counted 20 visible from our roof terrace alone.

But this article is about neither geography nor the history of the Middle Ages. It’s about eating locally grown food.

The rugged land formation in the center is what Italians call “calanchi” (Photo: Hinshaw).

From our vantage point on the high city wall, at elevation 650 meters (around 2,100 feet), we look down on a valley floor, with the River Aso flowing from the Sibillini Mountains to the sea. The lower reaches and both sides of this valley are lined with small farms on hillsides.

Occasionally dividing the cultivated fields are geologic features common to the eastern side of Italy, known as calanchi (cal-ANK-key). These are steep rock-faced cliffs on which absolutely nothing grows. The many verdant fields are interrupted by these rippled, beige bluffs.

The farms themselves resemble a crazy quilt. I don’t think there is a 90-degree angle corner anywhere. They are interlocking polygons, each changing color by the season and varying according to which crop is grown. Some remain fallow every other year, as farming practices dictate. Some patches are dark green, others are light green, still others are luminescent green, as if emanating their own internal light. You almost need sunglasses to look at them.

You also need shades when the sunflower fields are in full bloom during the summer. These seem to roll on forever, the intense yellow faces of the flowers turning automatically with the position of the sun. Large solar arrays occupying some slopes replicate this same rotating dance — a fascinating juxtaposition of the mechanics of nature and technology.

On some slopes, vineyards are prominent, with their distinctive parallel rows of vines splayed on cables and wires. Most wines produced here — as outstanding as they may be — are little known elsewhere and are largely consumed within the region itself. A few varieties, such as the tasty Verdicchio, are known internationally.

But this is not as significant a grape-growing area as the southern regions. In some wineries, you simply bring in your own jug and fill it with a hose from a pump, not unlike those found in gas stations. The pump notes the variety, the price per liter, and ticks off the amount flowing into your receptacle. One can drink superb wine for less than a few euros per bottle. 

Olives are also grown here, though not as abundantly as elsewhere. A regional specialty is known as Olive Ascolana — an appetizer of large, deep-fried green olives stuffed with sausage. Biting through the layers triggers an explosion of flavors on the tongue. They are so dangerously addictive we limit ourselves to a single helping each month. In the city of Ascoli Piceno, the birthplace of this treat, they are sold by street vendors in paper cones, a sort of Italian answer to English chips.

In addition to these treats, most of the daily food we consume comes directly from the many farms outside our windows. Having grown up in the American Midwest with huge fields owned by massive international conglomerates, the pattern of small farms surrounding us was at first baffling.

Statistics tell the story dramatically. Italy has over one million farms, most no more than a few dozen acres and owned by families that have worked them for centuries. By contrast, the United States has barely two million farms in a country many times the size. In America, small family-owned farms are increasingly rare, and most farmland is now owned by food production industries. What the Soviets tried to do in the 1930s by seizing lands owned by the nobility and creating enormous collectives, the U.S. has accomplished handily through tax laws, public policies, highway expansion, and easy-to-get rezoning by cities or counties.

Italy, on the other hand, zealously protects its farmlands. It’s nigh impossible to get such land rezoned for commercial use. Sometimes it happens, though, and then one sees a jarring contrast of green fields lying between two industrial plants. Rows of corn and sheep pastures are interlaced among manufacturing, warehouses, and retail stores. Four-story apartment buildings abut furrows of rich soil for the next planting cycle.

Street market with fresh fruit & veg (Photo: Hinshaw).

This close proximity to growing food means we have access to the freshest possible vegetables, fruits, and meats, as well as fish from the sea. A fish truck sets up every Tuesday and Friday morning in our village.

I have learned to leap out precisely at 11:20 a.m., as the bins of shrimp, salmon, various whitefish, and an unusual shellfish that translates as “cicada of the sea” are rapidly emptied out by a passel of waiting and chattering customers. I stand right there with my cash alongside the cat that patiently awaits its hunk of fish guts tossed by the vendor or his son before they close up.

Moreover, most Italian farmers use no pesticides, chemicals, or preservatives, so nothing blunts the flavor of food. It took us a while to get used to the fact that fresh foods spoil in a matter of days if not eaten. We now walk to one of several nearby markets every few days to replenish our supply. But that required undoing a lifetime pattern of weekly shopping trips. Thankfully, those little markets — called alimentari in Italian — are all within a five-minute walk.

Even having lived in the American Midwest, with its prolific agricultural production and vast range of foods, I’ve never tasted flour so fine as here. I once overheard a heated argument between two older women about the merits of two different grinds of local flour, which are still produced by a massive stone wheel pressing wheat onto a large slab. At least I think they were arguing, with raised impassioned voices. It’s hard to tell— they might have been simply agreeing.

The exquisite flour, I am convinced, is why pizza and pastries taste so much better here. It’s artisanal, the wheat grown by loving hands and ground by people with many generations of expertise. All of the food here is amazing. We have lost count of the number of times at a restaurant or even a simple trattoria when one of us bursts out with, “Oh MY GOD, this is the best [fill in the blank], I have ever had in my life!”

I guess the question is: what in the world were we eating before?

Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw
Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.


  1. I want to go so very much. Your story highlights so many things we could come to value here in the US, if only we could taste the differences. And, of course, change our policies.

  2. This highlights the importance of the senses in causing change. How often, in later life, has a certain smell brought back memories you haven’t recalled for years? Those of us who write a lot are missing out on these other forms of persuasion!


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