Rustic chic Italian style


TRAVEL:As with so many things, Italians celebrate New Year’s – or Capodanno – in style, checking into plush city hotels for a few days or seeking the solace of the mountains. This year, with the nation in the grip of a sobering economic crisis, some are making the abstemious choice of a traditional farmer’s New Year’s instead. A sojourn in a country house can pass for agritourism, but for a true taste of bucolic festivity it’s worth seeking out smaller, more authentic establishments.

Ca’ Maddalena is one such. In the north of Le Marche – a region less visited but hardly less handsome than Tuscany to the west – this former 17th-century farmstead has been sensitively restored and has space for up to 25 guests, while still preserving its original rustic character.

“Rustic character” doesn’t mean you’ll shiver the night away in a draughty room; it’s warm and comfortable, with vast, splendid beds, while the larger rooms boast enormous sofas for reclining in and enjoying the mountain views. The property looks down on the small town of Fermignano, and is a perfect vantage point from which to marvel at the haughty central Apennines. When I arrive, the snow that fell a couple of days previously hasn’t yet melted and the iced hills and peaks are shining brilliantly under the winter sun.

“My family grew up near here,” says Soraia Corolla, who owns and runs the place with her husband Marco Di Simoni, his brother, Michele, and a friend, Ivan. “For my parents and Marco’s [who are also from Fermignano] it was very hard work. My mother is fond of reminding my young daughter that while things are good today, not too long ago the people here were very, very poor.”

The post-war years were so tough that many rural people migrated to the cities in search of work, or left Italy altogether, abandoning their homes to the elements. Deserted in the 1950s, Ca’ Maddalena was one such property. The first time Corolla and Di Simoni saw it, more than a decade ago, trees had grown wild over the land and they couldn’t see the buildings which, once found, were little more than derelict ruins. “But we knew immediately that it was the perfect place,” Corolla says.

The restoration, which started the following summer, took two years. Ancient oak from the original farm was used to rebuild the exteriors, and all the furniture was made from off-cuts. The oldest building was the main farmhouse, dating back more than 300 years, and now a restaurant. I spend much of my stay here working through the current menu before it changes – which it does weekly to ensure the freshest ingredients.

Ingredients? Well, this is a farm. Outside pigs are grunting along heedless of the snow, while the cows, more prudent, idle under cover. Farm animals supply most of Ca’ Maddalena’s food (except the horses, though you never know with Italians) and are culled here; other livestock is imported – from a neighbour living a whole 15-minute walk away. But things weren’t always so bountiful.

“Pigs saved a lot of lives here,” Corolla says, and they show up throughout the menu, starting with the antipasti platter with choice cuts of prosciutto, coppa and salami. Most of the dishes on the menu were originally designed to sustain inhabitants through the winter months. Many were also derived from smaller, more affordable animals, so handmade pastas come with pigeon, duck and rabbit ragùs.

Di Simoni, who does most of the cooking, learnt the ancient recipes from his local-born grandmother, and 94-year-old Nonna Di Simoni is still passing down her wisdom today. His polenta with snails is novel and delicious, as is the fortifying porchetta (baby pig) stuffed with fennel and garlic.

The dining highlight has to be New Year’s Eve – as much for the eccentric celebration as the food. The guests, Italians drawn from far and wide by the promise of quality food, all order cotechino – pig’s skin filled with heart, tongue, liver – served with lentils, which are said to bring good luck for the coming year. I don’t want to be the odd one out, and it doesn’t disappoint.

At midnight, everyone – except me – watches a simple firework display outside with a glass of spumante in hand, after which it’s back indoors for tambola, a holiday game similar to bingo, then an agri-quiz, contestants ringing in their answers with cowbells. It’s a throwback to the past where local families would gather together in one farmstead to see in the New Year. The atmosphere is relaxed rather than riotous, and everybody is in bed by 3am.

The sprightly can visit Fermignano’s festival, which includes a late-night discoteca and a traditional dance. The ancient town is well worth strolling around by day too, taking in its old churches, Roman bridge and medieval tower.

But back to New Year – why miss the fireworks? In the afternoon of the day before Capadanno, I take a walk up to Ca’ Maddalena’s highest point. From here it feels like you’re suspended on high with Carpegna and Catria, the two nearest peaks. There are no lights to disturb the sun’s descent behind the mountains. At that moment, gazing up at the clear heavens, I decide what I’d be doing when the clock strikes 12. I’ll be here, looking at the stars and – after a salvo of fireworks from below – in complete silence.

Book it

Staying there:Double rooms start at €80; a five-bed is €120. Horse riding costs €15. Tel: 00-39 -0722 331025,

Getting there:Ryanair has flights from Dublin to Venice or Rome, both of which are three-hour drives from Fermignano. From March, Aer Lingus will offer flights from Dublin to Bologna, from where the journey to Fermignano lasts 90 minutes. Trains and buses are fast and frequent.

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