Le Marche's 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.
How to make Stuffed Olives
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.
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: