New Italian Region to Discover: Le Marche — Adriatic Bliss
October 26, 2015
On the border between Tuscany and Umbria, flanked by the Apennine Mountains which slope gently along the hills and valleys down to the Adriatic Sea, lies Le Marche. This is a land strongly attached to artisan tradition, where farm to food was the norm long before the phrase was coined. Good wine and top-quality food, nearly-lost folk art, and almost none of the crowds found in other equally beautiful corners of Italy set Le Marche apart. The region also boasts dozens of cities full of art, among which the masterpieces of Piero della Francesca, Raphael, Bellini, Lorenzo Lotto, Rubens and Titian. Oh, and don’t forget that Rossini — The Barber of Seville; Cinderella — is from here as well.
Perfectly preserved historic theaters (72 of them!), Roman roads and hidden villages ready to unveil their secrets and traditions. Nearly 200 churches that date to Roman times. Strategically-placed monasteries, abbeys and convents, some of which are now open to guests and visitors as they once were to pilgrims. Pair these virtues with a hospitality that genuinely touched me, borne of a land still unspoiled by mass tourism. This is Le Marche.
The remainder of this blog post is intended to whet your appetite — literally — for Le Marche. Cooking in the Marche is deeply rooted in peasant tradition and remains impervious to the arrival of processed anything. Here the home cook rather than the professional chef rules and even the smartest restaurants seek to produce food just like nonna, or grandmother, used to make. In fact, the trip we’ll offer next year will emphasize this aspect by showing you the real Marchigiana kitchen on several occasions!
As in the rest of Italy, each local area has its distinctive cucina tipica. Foods gathered from the wild rule: funghi, game, nuts, field herbs and – the area’s greatest culinary treasure – truffles. Many are the Italian claims of “the best truffles”, but you’ll have to try the Marchigiana version and then make up your own mind. Thankfully for us, the slow arrival of tourists in smaller towns and villages has often raised the standards in local restaurants and led to the “rediscovery” of long lost traditional dishes, so that these delights can be found both in local homes and elsewhere.
Sit down in a country trattoria, and you may have to cope with a menu rattled off at your table by the proprietor. At your blank looks, a bit of English or French will often surface, which may prove intimidating. Be adventurous in order to discover the best-kept secrets! Particularly in summer or early autumn, look out for the local sagra – a festival dedicated to a town’s particular specialty where you can try the food in question in every form imaginable.
It’s said that the marchigiani eat more meat than any other Italians. Antipasti of mountain salt-cured ham and lonza (salt-cured fillet of pork), and ciauscolo (a soft, spreadable pork salame — harder to find) — come to mind. The classic primo is tagliatelle dressed with a sugo, or meat sauce. The region’s unique pasta dish is vincisgrassi, a rich baked lasagna without the expected tomatoes. Urbino is also famous for passatelli, strands of pasta made from breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, and egg cooked in broth. Apart from the ever-present meat grilled alle brace, on embers, delicious stuffed pigeons (piccione ripieno) and rabbit cooked with fennel (coniglio in porchetta) are a Marche speciality. I have just put rabbit back on my radar, after having an amazing version of it last month in Tuscany! In some areas, even stewed snails (lumache) occasionally end up on the menu.
It this meat-heavy menu is just too much for you, make your way to the gorgeous Adriatic coast. Particularly around Ancona, try brodetto, fish stew which must be made with 13 species of fish, no more, no less. Spaghetti dressed with vongole, or baby clams, is always top notch here as is spaghetti allo scoglio, “on the rocks” — again, dressed with seafood. And you can bet that the grilled fresh catch of the day, nearly always simply prepared with salt, lemon and EVOO, will be consistently wonderful.
In the northern Marche look out for piadina, a flat, unleavened bread often served with cold meats at roadside snack-bars. The sheeps’ milk pecorino cheese is superb here and is best eaten in the spring with young raw broad beans or fave. Look out, too, for formaggio di fossa – (a strong-flavored cheese aged in limestone holes in the ground).
I am more than excited to introduce our trip to Le Marche next year. Would you like to be one of the lucky few who joins us to discover the culinary and other delights of an unspoiled region?