The Cuisine

This is a land connecting the North with the South, and the cuisine of the Marches adheres strictly to the characteristics of the cuisine and the traditions of the bordering towns. The area around Pescara has evident shades of Romagna, and the influence of Tuscany and Umbria is evident along the Apennine ridge; the province of Ascoli Piceno is an ante-camera to the regions of Abruzzi and Lazio. The culinary tradition of the Marches remains excluded from the splendours of the Renaissance linked to the power of the Church and the courts. The reason for this being that this land was – from the historical point of view – a conquered land which was left in the hands of the smaller, local country squires whose habits and customs never crossed over the borders of their own properties. In fact, it is not by chance that the cuisine of the Marches (like that of the Abruzzi and Molise regions) makes no appearance in the great historical treatises concerning the culinary art.
From the gastronomic point of view, therefore, the Marches is not renowned for its originality. But if it is true that the cuisine presents some characteristics which are identical to those of the nearby regions, it is also true that it adds a good number of its own particular specialities. The high level of quality which is to be found in the restaurants and taverns should immediately be pointed out: it is a rustic cuisine rather than a refined one, but it is always precise, scrupulous, made with the love and ancient knowledge enriched by the hard work and care of the parsimonious women of this land.
The coastline, apart from the steep and rocky cliffs of the Conero, is gentle all the way down and fishing has always been the primary activity (San Benedetto del Tronto is still the most important fishing market on the Adriatic coast); there is, therefore, the predomination of fish recipes (kebabs and soups), which owe their deliciousness both to the freshness of the raw ingredients and to the expertise of the preparation involved.
The rest of the region, run through by a stretch of gentle hillsides and then by a strip of mountains, is a land of ancient rural civilisation. This character is evident in every aspect of the life and of the countryside, notwithstanding the significant industrial and tourist development which the Marches has achieved over the centuries. The people live with dignity, at the correct pace, in a serene environment and without arduousness. The farmers still live on the land they farm (and this is a unique type of situation in Italy), the cities and towns (neat and gathered together, but genial and luminous) are authentic ‘towns’, but share very much with the countryside which surrounds them; so, everywhere the table is healthy, flavoursome and genuine. The traditional foods are porchetta (a whole pig stuffed with flavouring and roasted on a spit), free-range chickens, game, vegetables, olives, salamis, hams and sausages (the tasty prosciutto is typical, and becomes more and more rustic as you go inland; it is cut not in slices, but into chunks). The dressing used most is oil, but for some foods, also butter and, above all, lard are used, even though this has been all but abandoned in all the other areas of Italy; here it is often used, intelligently and sparingly, to be lighter on the stomach. In addition, the province of Pesaro is the biggest truffle producer in Italy, particularly of the prized white truffle in direct competition with Alba: the “capital” in the Marches for truffles is Acqualagna, between Pesaro and Urbino where the famous market is held. The highly fragranced tubers (white, black, grey, purple, hazelnut- and earth-coloured), therefore, enter into the local gastronomy with a certain frequency, giving strength and character to many dishes. The dish which reigns above all in the cuisine “of the land” in the Marches – as we have already mentioned – is the porchetta. It can always be found at any country festival or fete and often also at side of the busier roads: it is presented at simple stalls, sliced thickly and accompanied by home-made style bread as a substantial snack. It is true that the custom of eating porchetta is also common to the provinces of Tuscany, in the southern part, Umbria and to some parts of Lazio, but it seems to have been ascertained that the invention and the record for the quality are due to the Marches region. The porchetta is de-boned as usual then stuffed with flavourings, amongst which garlic and wild fennel, and then is wet with wine. The traditional method of cooking it is on the spit, emanating its strong fragrances throughout the towns, with the children crowding around, the meat slowly browning and turning a terracotta colour, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. But the result is excellent even from oven cooking and when there is a wood burning fire, fed with branches of pine, holm oak and oak, the meat becomes even more aromatised with a flavour which cannot be equalled. The same preparatory technique is also used for rabbit, lumaca snails, "garagoli" (choice gasteropods, molluscs with a spiralled, dorsal shell, similar to lumaca snails) which are, in fact, then described as being cooked “in porchetta”: the base is the aromatisation with a finely chopped mixture of garlic, pancetta bacon, wild fennel and the presence of white wine which softens and also strengthens the flavour.
From the fragrance of porchetta, we go on to that of the «brodetto», no less tempting, which comes from all the coastal localities. It is 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 followed all the same 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 is wild saffron. On these two themes, the infinite variations are, however, harmonious, mostly due to the fact that the fish, rock fish and deep water is rigorously fresh. Naturally, the fish appears in the menus in many varieties of preparations.
If the preparation of the brodetto divides the people of the coast of the Marches region, that of the other regional dishes holds no diatribes or tensions. The «vincisgrassi» are the first most characteristic dish of the cuisine of the Marches, and particularly of the area around Macerata. They appear as large, rectangular lasagne, home made with white flour, semolina, butter, eggs, salt and vin santo (a dessert wine) from the Marches which are dressed with mushrooms, chicken livers and sometimes truffles; alternatively, with chicken giblets, brain, sweetbreads and proscuitto (cured ham); then they are covered with béchamel sauce and baked in the oven. Once, the béchamel was substituted with a mixture of broth/stock and breadcrumbs. There is a story, as always a little legendary, which is at the origins of this dish, and which dates back to 1799 in the retinue of the prince Windisch-Graetz, captain in the Austrian army against Napoleon. At Ancona he is said to have eaten with relish the lasagne prepared in this way, perhaps by a local cook or perhaps by a cook of the retinue. In fact, since then, the people were said to associate him with one of their favourite dishes. All this seems to be rather unlikely. In reality, the lasagne must have been a much older dish: maybe they only took their name from the foreign nobleman. It should be recorded, in fact, that in a recipe-book from Macerata, written many years before the visit of the prince by Antonio Nebbia, there is a reference to a sauce for prinzgras (a term for which the origin is unknown) which corresponds to the sauce for the vincisgrassi.
As in the whole of central-southern Italy, pasta is never lacking from the table, and it is the opportunity for an infinite number of inventions.
The «cappelletti alla pescarese» (cappelletti pasta Pescara style) are similar to the ones made in Romagna, but here have a stuffing with the base of roast pork, boiled capon or turkey, ox marrow (from the leg joint) with eggs, pepper, nutmeg and Parmesan cheese. They are eaten in the capon broth and are a traditional fare for Christmas. The «macaron fatt in chesa» are, however, prepared for weekdays, and are the classic tagliatelle made with flour, bran, eggs and hard work. They are prepared by the women with the ability and passion comparable to that found in the lands of Emilia and Romagna. Shoulders and arms move rapidly in front of the pastry board in the ritual gestures required for kneading the dough, then they roll out the pasta in a thin and perfectly even layer and, lastly, with a steady wrist, they cut the pasta into strips. Thus are produced the tagliatelle or the pappardelle (like tagliatelle but thicker), ready to cook, solid, elastic and crisp and to be dressed with a meat sauce with mushrooms and pecorino (sheep’s) cheese or to combine with game and/or chicken livers which will give them a rich and wonderful flavour.
In the area around Pescara, we find yet another version, this time "di magro" (meatless), of ravioli: these are not unusual in so 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. The rural soups of the Marches are flavoursome and substantial, such as the one – a dish which truly constitutes a whole meal – which combines vegetables, meatballs, chicken livers, sausages and slices of bread.
The vegetables, full of flavour and colour, are often protagonists of the table. The olives have a leading position: large and fleshy, dense and shiny like black or green pearls, they are stuffed with meat, chicken livers, breadcrumbs, aromatised with nutmeg and cinnamon and then fried. They are a speciality of Ascoli Piceno, but can be found throughout the province and are a delicacy because the sensual flavour of the stuffing blends marvellously with the acidulous scent of the olives and the crisp cheerfulness of the coast.
An ancient recipe provides us with a classic dish «la liva (olive) fritta all'ascolana» (fried olives Ascoli style). Wash well to remove the salt and the bitterness from one kilo of olives in brine stone them cutting the olives around in a spiral so that they become one single strip and can therefore be reassembled. Into a casserole dish put two hundred grams (seven ounces) of lean beef, two hundred grams (seven ounces) of chicken breast, two hundred grams of lean pork, all cut into small chunks, olive oil, onion, celery, carrot, salt and a pinch of black pepper. When all this has been well sautéed it should be finely chopped and in a mixing bowl combined with one hundred and fifty grams (five ounces) of Parmesan, half a grated nutmeg, two eggs. Beat well until you obtain an even mixture which should then be rolled into small balls the size of a small walnut, which will be wrapped with the skin of the stoned olives, so that the olives are reassembled. These olives should be floured, dipped into two beaten eggs, drained and rolled in breadcrumbs. They are then fried in boiling hot oil and served hot. This is a true speciality.
Another theme 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.
The chapter of the cakes and desserts is not vast, but is certainly fragrantly scented: ciambelline (ring shaped cakes) and pagnottelle, ravioli made of short pastry («piconi»), little Carnival cakes («scroccafusi»), an old and rather forgotten Christmas cake («frustignolo»). But perhaps the best way of ending a meal is to taste the fresh pecorino cheese; in the Marches region, in fact, it is often served as the last dish of a lunch: sweet, compact, fragrant, tasting of herbs and good, fresh air. It is the cheese which is most tied to the traditions and for which there is also an ancient game dedicated to it. In some towns of the region, in fact, pecorino is the protagonist of the ancient game ‘della ruzzola’ (‘of rolling’), which consists of the confronting of teams of the different villages. The game is to roll a wheel of well matured cheese down the street: each team can throw three times, and the winner is the team whose cheese arrives the farthest.
A genuine and flavoursome cuisine which should be discovered and tasted on site, also due to the fact that facing certain panoramic stretches of rocks and hills, immersed in the mystical and warlike atmosphere of many areas, or alongside the changing reflections of the Adriatic sea, everything takes on its own inimitable coherence. And then trying to reproduce it, in an effort to learn not only “how it is made”, but also, and more so, the balance of the flavours, the intelligent and prudent use of the dressings, the love for all which is genuine, correct and measured.