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Food & Wine: Le Marche Cuisine

Everyone who loves food knows how wonderful Italian cuisine can be – that magical mixture of fresh, seasonal, local ingredients, prepared with complementing flavours and textures, using techniques developed and refined over centuries.

Even the simplest dishes, such as pasta with a fresh tomato sauce, or fresh baked bread with olive oil and rosemary, are a delight.  And the locally-produced wines perfectly complement the dishes. We are all familiar with Tuscan cuisine, and some spicier southern Italian dishes, not to mention the Neapolitan innovation of pizza.

The cuisine of Le Marche is, as yet, little known outside the area itself, but combines all the best elements of the neighbouring provinces, as well as its own, coming from ancient Piceni and Roman roots. And one of the best features is the price! Excellent food in Le Marche is much cheaper than in other neighbouring regions!

The geography of the region contributes to the richness of the cuisine, incorporating as it does ingredients coming from the sea, the mountains, and verdant, rural pastures. There is a mix of seafood and fish, local meat, poultry and game, and a delectable range of succulent fruits and vegetables, not to mention the cereals which go to produce a range of grains and flours for many different purposes.

Because of the quality of pasture land in the region, meat is readily available and delicious. The locals are great meat-eaters, consuming everything from pigeon to suckling pig. Nothing is wasted, so every part of the animal is used, from the blood, to tripe, brains and trotters.

There’s a lot of choice for vegetarians too. Lentil and bean dishes are popular, and the wide range of local cheeses are delicious. Tomatoes are fundamental to the cuisine, but fennel is also very popular, as are wild mushrooms, nuts and herbs, all easily available in the local countryside. Saffron is also used, as well as truffles, which are a very popular local delicacy.

Ancient Roots

How to make Stuffed Olives (Olive all'Ascolana)

Olives have been grown in the region since time immemorial, and are particularly delicious, and presented in a wide variety of ways. One of the most popular, (and unique to the region) are the Olive Ascolane (Olives from Ascoli) which are ubiquitous at all special events and festivals. 

 

These are green olives, painstakingly prepared by local women, pitted and stuffed with a filling of meat and cheese, then dipped in beaten egg and breadcrumbs and deep-fried to a golden brown in sunflower oil. They are served as a starter or a snack, often with crema fritta (little squares of condensed cream fried in breadcrumbs) and can be bought freshly fried to munch on as you wander around a market or festival, or packaged frozen ready to prepare at home. 

Locally grown fruits are also greatly prized and go back to antiquity. The Romans were delighted by the local fruits when they conquered the original Piceni peoples, and adopted some of their methods of preparing and serving fruit. Dried figs are a special delicacy, prepared in the local way with a flavouring of candied peel and almonds and compressed to form delicious little bricks or cylinders of aromatic sweetness, often wrapped in fig leaves. Locally grown fruits are also greatly prized and go back to antiquity.

The Romans were delighted by the local fruits when they conquered the original Piceni peoples, and adopted some of their methods of preparing and serving fruit. Dried figs are a special delicacy, prepared in the local way with a flavouring of candied peel and almonds and compressed to form delicious little bricks or cylinders of aromatic sweetness, often wrapped in fig leaves.

Fish soups and stews also come from Piceni roots, and are ubiquitous in the coastal region. The richest (and most decadent!) is made from 13 different types of fish and seafood, and can include vinegar, saffron or garlic, depending on the local recipe.

There are also a number of special, regional preparations for the local seafood: in porchetta, a combination of spices, seafood and cured pork like pancetta or prosciutto; in potacchio, cooked with white wine, tomato, lemon juice and spices, alla marinara, stewed in tomato sauce; or gratinati al forno (baked, topped with cheese), or oven-grilled. In autumn, brodetto ( fish broth) afficionados flock to Fano, a beach resort southeast of Pesaro, for the annual Brodetto and Fish Soup Festival.

There are many sweets and cakes which come from Piceni origins, and which were much sought after in ancient Rome, according to writers of the day, and known as ‘Piceni Breads’.  Cicerchiata is a dessert made from dough that has been left to rise, then shaped into balls, baked in the oven and covered with honey. Becciate are made with raisins and pine nuts.

Adventurous eaters should try Migliaccio, a dessert made with pig’s blood, sugar and citrus peel. If you don’t have the stomach for miglaccio, try Frustega, a simple pastry with sapa di mosto, or cooked grape must (which is the first stage in wine making, consisting of the freshly pressed juice of the grapes, including skins, stalks, pips and juice).

Polenta (maize flour paste) is also prominent locally, originating from earlier than the recent introduction of pasta, when maize was introduced by Christopher Columbus. Polenta is usually eaten freshly ground, from October through the winter months, accompanied by whatever imaginative housewives serve, ranging from fish stew or anchovies, to pork or herbs.  It used to be cooked in a cauldron over an open fire, but now the golden ground flour is cooked slowly in a deep saucepan until it has a soft, creamy delicacy. Unfortunately, the local variety of maize - the quarantino nostrano, is not easy to find as it has become quite rare in recent years.

A long and healthy life

Fresh, raw vegetables are an integral part of the daily diet, and this certainly contributes to the uniquely long life-expectancy of this region. Also significant is the lack of processed and fast foods. People prefer home-made dishes from ingredients sourced locally and prepared in time-honoured ways. There is much heated debate these days on the dangers of saturated fats, but, to judge from the health of the people from Le Marche who clearly much appreciate the wonderful range of meat dishes, a certain quantity of animal fats may not be doing them too much harm!

Sweet dishes are popular, but only eaten rarely on special occasions or in small quantities. Traditionally these were made with honey rather than sugar, and butter does not play a large part in local cuisine.

It is also said that a small amount of red wine each day can actually contribute to good health. The locals prize their good wines but are very moderate drinkers.

If a contributing factor to longevity is a sense of well-being and contentment, then one could safely say that the quality of the cuisine in Le Marche must be a major factor in the unusually high life-expectancy enjoyed in the region.

Jamie Oliver in Le Marche:

Food & Wine Highlights

Meat

Inland, the most popular meat is, and always has been, pork, and every part of the pig is used in a wide variety of dishes. It is also offered salt-cured or smoked in a mouth-watering range of sausages and salami. 

One of the best and most distinctive is Ciauscolo: smoky pork sausage. This soft smoked-pork sausage is flavoured with fennel, garlic and vino cotto, a local non-alcoholic 'cooked wine' made from grape must with a unique sweet-and-sour flavour.

Served spread on toast as an appetiser or a snack, thick slices or chunks of ciauscolo are also used to enrich winter meat, bean stews or vegetable soups. The best ciauscolo can be found in any butcher in Le Marche's many hilltop towns. Another local favourite is Porchetta, a spit-roasted whole, boneless pig that has been stuffed with herbs. Rabbit, pigeon and other indigenous animals are available, often cooked using fennel, which is typical of the region. Piolotto is a traditional way to prepare meat by wrapping it in paper with a piece of lard, which melts into the meat during cooking.

Pasta

There are lots of delicious unique pasta dishes in Le Marche, though its appearance in the region came from external influence, particularly from the neighbouring Romagna.

The locals gave the newly adopted commodity a local slant and offer a mouth-watering selection of regional pasta dishes, such as Vincisgrassi - an epic lasagne, consisting of 12 layers of pasta sheets are interspersed with veal ragu, chicken liver or lamb sweetbreads, truffles or wild mushrooms, and béchamel sauce.

This is, predictably, only on offer for very special occasions! Another delicious local pasta dish is Tagliatelle with Squid and Prawn.

 

Vincisgrassi - Lasagne Marche Style
 
Cheese and Olives

Cheese

A cheese produced all over Le Marche is the classic Pecorino (made from ewe’s milk), with local varieties such as those from the Sibillini Mountains or Mount Rinaldo.

A delicious cheese produced near Talamello is the tasty Formaggio di Fossa, sometimes known as Ambra di Talamello (Talamello’s Amber), which is made of a mixture of sheep and cows milk. This cheese is protected from theft, according to rural custom, by wrapping the cheeses in cloth and hiding them in tufa holes, which are then sealed. After ripening for three months in straw or walnut leaves, this renowned cheese is usually eaten in November, when the holes are re-opened during the festival on Saint Catherine’s Day.

The Montefeltro region also produces Casècc (ripened in earthenware jars) and the Casciotta d’Urbino, a cheese apparently much loved by the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. This is a soft cheese made from a mixture of different milks, which is cured for a short time in barrels.

This cheese was recently awarded the d.o.c. and d.o.p. labels (controlled denomination of origin, and protected denomination of origin).

 

Other cheeses worthy of mention are the Formaggio ubriaco al Vino rosso (a cheese seasoned in red wine), typical of the Ancona and Macerata provinces, using the Lacrima di Morro d’Alba and Vernaccia di Serrapetrona wines respectively, and the lemon-shaped Cacio from the Metauro valley, produced by pouring the curd into lemon-shaped moulds. To achieve its unique flavour, salt and grated lemon rind are spread on the cheese during seasoning. 

Cow’s milk produces some very good fresh cheeses, such as Raviggiolo and Slattato whereas goat’s milk is used to produce the savoury Caprino di Urbino (a cheese that undergoes a long period of seasoning), and Quark, a fresh cheese that may be spread on bread and is best eaten with chives and rocket.

  

Truffles

Truffles are, and always have been, a very popular local delicacy, and several different varieties are available at different times of the year. From the middle of September till the end of January the most sought-after and expensive truffle variety can be found; the large and golden valuable white truffle.

Small black truffles are found in winter time from the middle of December till the end of March, the bianchetto truffles (smooth truffles), from January to the end of April. Summer black truffles are found from June till August, and the excellent smooth black truffle and the ordinary black truffles are available during the winter. It is also worth mentioning the tartufi uncinati (hook-like truffles), the tartufi moscati (muscat truffles) and the sweet valuable black truffles which are found from November to the middle of March. In small towns such as Acqualagna, Amandola, Sant’Angelo truffles may be found all year round, during festivals, and in shops and markets selling local products. 

 

Truffles are available whole, just as they are found, or processed into truffle-scented oils, soft truffle pastes, or savoury sauces. They are served in restaurants as the main ingredient in some classic dishes. In the shops and markets they are often displayed like jewels, and their price can be as high!

There are several local truffle festivals in the region: The National White Truffle Festival (in late October, early November) and the Regional Valuable Black Truffle Festivals (in late February) and the Summer Black Truffle Fair (on 15th August) in Acqualagna, are among the most important exhibitions in Italy, along with the autumn National Fair of Agriculture, Wood and Shepherds’ products in Sant’Agata Feltria.  

Wine Toasting

Wine

Le Marche is best known as a white-wine region, although it is home to some reds of very high quality too. The leading white varieties here are the ubiquitous Trebbiano (in various forms) and Verdicchio, the grape to which Le Marche has been a spiritual home for more than 600 years.

The finest Verdicchios are found in the DOCGs Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica.

These green-hued, refreshingly crisp, green-tinged white wines are characterized by lively acidity and subtle herbaceous undertones, and are perfect accompaniments for Brodetto di Pesce, a rich local seafood stew.

Another excellent white wine from Le Marche is Bianchello di Metauro, made from Bianchello grapes grown around the Matauro river valley. Among the red wines of Le Marche, the finest are generally made from Montepulciano and/or Sangiovese grapes, the dark-skinned varieties that dominate central Italian red wines.

The most popular red wine in the region is Rosso Piceno. The same varieties are also used to make the intensely fragrant Rosso Conero Riserva.

These two are backed up by Ciliegiolo, Pinot Nero, Lacrima di Morro and, notably, Vernaccia Nera, the variety behind the sparkling DOCG wine Vernaccia di Serrapetrona. These firm, tannic wines are unusual in the sea of Marche's white and lighter-hearted reds, and fly the flag for diversity in the region's wine production.

The Complete Foodie Guide to Le Marche

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