On the Mountains

The stretch of mountains in this region is a land of ancient rural civilisation. The people live with dignity, at the correct pace, in a serene environment and without arduousness. The farmers still live (and this is a unique type of situation in Italy) on the land they farm, 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, apart from pasta, free-range chickens, game, vegetables and olives. The dressing used most is oil, butter also butter and, above all, lard the use of which has been abandoned in the rest of Italy but is, here, often used intelligently and sparingly, to be lighter on the stomach.
But in the mountains of this area, the pig is the reigning sovereign, yielding a large variety of salamis for which – in line with the parsimonious character of the people of the Marches - every part of the pig is used, even the parts which are usually considered to be scraps. The pig, in fact, is the guiding thread of the inland Marches gastronomy and its history is tied to that of the share-cropping families; it was reared with acorns and mash and the butchering would take place during the winter when the food produced by the other agricultural activities was becoming scarce and the low temperatures permitted the processing and the preservation of the pork meats. The custom of making the best use of all the parts of the pig, even of the less prized parts, gave birth to the two most typical sausages and salamis of the region, the ciauscolo or ciavuscolo and the salame lardellato. The «ciauscolo», for example, is a sausage which is eaten fresh, spread on slices of homemade bread and which is traditionally prepared with the least prized parts of the animal taken from the belly, the ribs and the shoulder with the addition of fat. The mixture is seasoned with salt and pepper, garlic and vino cotto (homemade, cooked grape must), and then passed through the mincing machine to be minced very finely. Stuffed into an intestine, it is similar to a large sausage and is smoked, sometimes with juniper berries, for a few days. It is then matured for a period of time which varies from two to three months in well ventilated premises or in the cellar. A speciality which could be described as “poor” which is typical of the mountains in Ascoli area is «coppa», a kind of salami prepared with pork rind, the cartilage, ears, tongue and snout of the pig. These ingredients are boiled for three or four hours together with the bones of the animal which are then carefully cleaned of all the useful meat. All the parts are then coarsely ground up and seasoned with pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, almonds, pistachio nuts and finely chopped walnuts. The mixture is then stuffed into the intestine casing which is called ‘trombone’ due to its large size, and tied up with string, boiled once again in the same water, and then lastly, is left to cool, pressed down by a weight to make it more compact. After four or five weeks, the coppa is ready and is served in thin slices, usually as an antipasto.
The dish which reigns above all in the cuisine “of the land” in the Marches 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.
Although this custom can be found in many areas of the rest of central Italy, 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, 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, and other meats which take on an excellent flavour. Also interesting is the salami known as «mazzafegato» which is prepared with the same mixture as that used for soppressata (another type of salami), but with the addition, to the proportion of fifteen per cent, of pigs’ liver and other entrails. The quantity of fat added is around twenty five percent of the quantity of lean meat. This is all minced, seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, orange peel and aromas and stuffed into an intestine of small diameter which has been washed and aromatised with hot wine. The salamis, once they have been tied, are left to dry in a cool place and are then stored for maturing. Tradition dictates that this salami is presented on the table to celebrate during Carnival and, in any case, the product must be eaten before summer since it would risk going rancid in the heat.
Amongst the first course dishes, where many are for pasta (giving rise for many inventions), the «vincisgrassi» are particularly characteristic. They are prepared as large, rectangular lasagne which are home-made and dressed with mushrooms, chicken livers and sometimes truffles; they are then covered with béchamel sauce and baked in the oven. But the «zuppa alla marchigiana» (‘Marches style soup’) is exquisite, this is a dish which constitutes a whole meal and which also requires a lengthy, but merited preparation time. According to an old recipe, the following ingredients are called for: four clusters of endives, a bunch of celery, one onion, as much oil and butter as required, a mixture of two hundred and fifty grams (nine ounces) of lean beef and veal, three chicken livers, three eggs, one tablespoon of flour, a rectangular sliced loaf of bread, two sausages, fifty grams (two ounces) of grated Parmesan cheese, as much salt and pepper as required. The dish is prepared as follows: clean the celery, which should be small and white, well and chop into small pieces, clean well also the endives, eliminating all the green leaves and cut into strips. In a casserole dish, sauté the finely chopped onion in the oil and butter, add the endives and the celery, season with salt and pepper and allow to cook for a quarter of an hour. Arrange the slices of bread in the bottom of an oven dish and place on top the celery and endive mixture, then cover over generously with the broth. Cover and cook very slowly, for the time necessary for the celery to become soft and, if necessary, adding broth while it is cooking. In the meantime, mince the meat. Put it into a mixing bowl and mix together with one egg, the flour, thirty grams (one ounce) of Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Roll this mixture into meatballs the size of walnuts and brown in oil and butter. Cook in butter as well the chicken livers cut into pieces, boil the sausages, hard boil the other two eggs and cut both into circular slices. When the soup is ready, add the meatballs, the chicken livers and the boiled eggs, season with the Parmesan cheese, cover with the broth and put into the oven to form a crust.
Amongst the gastronomical attractions of the Marches, there are also the mushrooms and the truffles. At the end of the summer, you can find ovoli (royal or Caesar’s mushrooms) and red porcinelli types of mushroom, in the autumn, around the mulberry and oak trees, chiodini (honey agaric mushrooms) which are excellent in meat sauces; at the end of April, there is an abundance of the prugnoli and spugnole types. Then there is the leccino and the galletto, the mazze di tamburo, the sanguinello, the gelone and porcini (edible boletus). The truffles found in the forests of the Marches region are of an extraordinary quality, both varieties, white and black having a very intense aroma. Some companies use the smaller sized ones in the production of truffle pastes, truffle flavoured butter and oil, packages of trifolati summer truffles, mixed pastes of mushrooms, olives and truffles, fondues of truffle flavoured cheese, and so on.
Cheese making in the Marches has rural, or even family origins. In a region with traditions of poverty, the alimentary requirements of the house were dependent upon the availability of the certain foods. Cheese was one of these, obtained almost always only from the milking of sheep, or in some cases of goats. Cows’ milk was much more rare because it was much easier to control the flocks of smaller animals out to pasture and their periodic transferral from one seasonal pasture to another, than whole herds of larger animals which could not be controlled with the help of just dogs. Over time, cheese production became a significant item in the economy of the region, so much so as to become the object of precise instructions on the part of the ruling signorias. The tradition took root and still today the pecorino (sheep’s) cheese, in its various versions, represents one of the fundamental elements of the gastronomy of the Marches, and has different characteristics from one locality to another. Amongst these, we wish to particularly note the famous pecorino from the Sibylline Mountains which is prepared with aromatic herbs: thyme (thymus serpyllum), marjoram, basil, blackberry bush shoots mixed with cloves, nutmeg, grated pecorino cheese, egg yolk, pepper and oil on days with a sky free of clouds, without wind and with a waning moon. At Monte Rinaldo, the flavour is given not only by the thyme and the other herbs and spices, but also by the suckling lamb whose stomach is used to produce the rennet. The pecorino is obtained from the curdled sheep’s milk which is ‘cooked’, salted and put in the mould.
The sweets of the Marches region are sober, the fruit of prudence and caution, and are prepared using the raw materials of the territory in an equilibrium which avoids excessively strong flavours. They usually contain little sugar because, in fact, it was once a precious commodity to be used sparingly and so honey was given the task of enriching the desserts. They were made for Carnival, religious festivals and for the occasions linked to the different seasons. Amongst these, it is worth noting the «frustingo» or «frustenga», or «pistingo», or «frostenga»; this is a typical cake which has many variations not only in flavour, but also in its name. It would seem that the name derives from “frusto”, or ‘poor’, even though we are faced with an imaginative invention, starting from simple, everyday ingredients. It is a winter cake which is tied to the Christmas festival and unites wholemeal flour with a list of ingredients which varies from one recipe to another, but there are always walnuts, almonds, dried figs, candied citrus peel, orange juice, lemon rind, sultanas, olive oil, cinnamon, rum, cocoa, coffee, dry white wine and cooked grape must.