The coast and hillside region
The region of the coastline in the Marches extends along the Adriatic Sea from Pesaro to San Benedetto del Tronto: it is an area which is edged by a sea abounding in fish which yields anchovies, prawns, curled octopus, lobsters, spiny lobsters, squid, octopus, clams, turbot, scorpion fish. The «brodetto» is the confirmation of the region’s fishing vocation, a fish soup which calls for as many as thirteen varieties of fish; the Conero promontory marks an imaginary ‘taste boundary’: to the north, it is prepared with tomato, and to the south, saffron is used. The «brodetto» is, in fact, the fish soup of the Adriatic coast: a mixture of fish, both whole and in pieces, in a sauce which is full of aromas. Every city and town presents “its” brodetto in a kind of contest, without winners or losers but all the same followed with great passion. There are two fundamental techniques: the one in use at Ancona and along the whole stretch of coastline from Pesaro to the Conero, and the one found from Porto Recanati down to the border with the Abruzzi region. The first is based on a sauce of garlic, oil, onion, tomato, parsley, pepper and vinegar to which are added from nine to thirteen qualities of fish. In fact, at Ancona, the rule is thirteen; those who are superstitious may even use up to eighteen different types: mackerel, flounders, turbot, scampi, grey mullet, flat lobster, small sea bass, small cod, mantis prawns, squid, cuttlefish, sole, smooth hounds, gurnard, eels… The second recipe-base instructs that the fish is sautéed after having been floured and then cooked in a sauce the dominant ingredient of which (and not only for its bright colour) is wild saffron.
The preparation of the fish is very similar to that used in the bordering region of Romagna, enriched by the flavours of the aromatic herbs which are particularly abundant in this land, and by the special care with which every dish is cooked with the intention of making even the most modest foods enjoyable. Amongst these dishes, we bring to mind the «sarde imbottite» (stuffed sardines) which call for the following ingredients: eight hundred grams (one pound twelve ounces) of sardines, a bunch of basil, one clove of garlic, one hundred grams (three and a half ounces) of grated Parmesan cheese, one hundred and fifty grams (five ounces) of breadcrumbs, two eggs, two lemons, oil and salt and which, following an old recipe, are prepared in the following way: «clean the sardines by scraping them with a knife, then open them up like a book, remove the bones, wash, drain and lay on a clean cloth to dry. Finely chop the basil and garlic and put into a mixing bowl, add the Parmesan and fifty grams (two ounces) of breadcrumbs, stir together and add enough oil to obtain a thick and even mixture. Fill the sardines with this mixture, tying them up again well, and pressing them down. In the meantime, beat the eggs with a little salt, immerse the sardines and then dip them in the breadcrumbs. In a metal frying pan, heat the necessary amount of oil required for frying and brown the sardines on both sides. Drain them well and serve hot».
An exquisite dish is fried sardines served with an anchovy sauce: the sauce is made by cooking the anchovies in a little oil flavoured with a clove of garlic and the addition of white wine and finely chopped parsley. And a typical dish is that of the «garagoli», molluscs which are cooked «in porchetta», so called because they are flavoured with all the flavourings which are dedicated, in fact, to the making of porchetta (a whole pig stuffed with flavourings and roasted on a spit) : at the base, there is the aromatisation with a generous quantity of finely chopped garlic, pancetta, wild fennel and the presence of white wine which softens and also strengthens the flavour.
A type of food which it is worth spending some time on is dried cod. In the Marches, this is prepared in at least three different ways: stewed, in the pan with layers of potato and in "potacchio", with garlic, rosemary, parsley, anchovies, chilli pepper and tomato. In this typical version, the meticulous dosage of the aromas is essential since they transform the poor man’s fish into a delicacy.
As far as first course dishes are concerned in the area around Pesaro, we come across a particular "di magro" (meatless) version of ravioli: these are not unusual in as far as the stuffing is concerned (ricotta, eggs, parsley, nutmeg), but for the dressing because it is made with sole, white wine and tomato. Delicate, fragrant and surprising in that, notwithstanding the fish, the recipe requires the classic and generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
Also famous, above all in the areas around Ancona and Ascoli (a land characterised by the famous stuffed, fried olives), are the «caciuni». They are a singular example of the union between sweet and savoury: home-made cakes made with bread dough which is rolled out into a thin sheet, to be then divided into large ravioli which are filled with fresh and matured pecorino (sheep’s) cheese, egg yolks, sugar and grated lemon rind. Before being baked in the oven, a cross-shape is cut on the top (from which the cheese will ooze out during cooking) and they are brushed with beaten egg. In the same provinces, another version is also prepared, of which the outside casing is made from a sweet dough, and which has a mixed filling of ricotta cheese, egg yolk, sugar, grated chocolate, cinnamon and almonds. The «caciunitti», however, are smaller caciuni which, in the place of the egg yolks and the ricotta, have a purée of chick peas. Instead of being baked, they are fried
The «tortelli di San Leo» merit a particular mention, they are huge ravioli with a filling of aromatic herbs which grow spontaneously in the countryside, common vegetables such as beet greens and spinach, ricotta, cheese and other ingredients. They are dressed with meat sauce and cheese.
The hillside area towards the Adriatic coast presents a stage for the vegetables which are amongst the best in Europe, such as the cauliflowers from Jesi and Fano, the cardoons from the Trodica Valley, protagonists of the dish parmigiana di gobbi, the peas from Potenza Picena, the artichokes from Montelupone, the broad beans from Ostra, the lentils from Visso and the «vinciarelli», plants of the thistle family, not to be found in other parts of Italy.
The simple and homemade cakes and desserts, for which local products are used, are common to the whole region. For this area in particular, the «serpe» is worth remembering. The mixture of almonds, sugar, egg whites and butter is rolled up and twisted around upon itself and then placed on a sheet of Host wafer and cooked in the oven with a covering of chocolate or a sugar icing.
In the glass, a local wine shines forth, a wine which comes either from the hinterland of the coastline, covered with vineyards which reach into the valleys, or from the agricultural heart of the region: here, the most typical and valued wines are produced, first amongst them all being the Verdicchio and the Vernaccia di Serrapetrona.
In the whole of the Marches region liqueurs and spirits are widely diffused, and belong to an ancient tradition which is tied to the presence of numerous monasteries. These, until the Fifteenth century, were dedicated to the preparation of drinks which are still today produced by many distilleries with respect to the ancient recipes. One product amongst these is particularly well known: the anice (‘aniseed’)liqueur, in consideration of the fact that the raw material was produced in large quantities, particularly in the area of Ascoli Piceno.
In particular, we note the ancient «balsamo Cagliostro» produced at San Leo, so called beacuse, according to a wide spread legend, it is a liqueur created by Cagliostro himself. But it is only a legend, because the poor man, imprisoned by the Papacy which disapproved of his Masonic practices, spent years of detention closed in a cell, receiving food through a trap door in the ceiling. He went mad and left the prison only after his death. Under these conditions it would have been very difficult for him to experiment with balms and liqueurs. This, however, has no bearing on the fact that balsamo Cagliostro is an excellent digestive with a base of liquorice roots, without the addition of colourings and artificial substances.