Le Marche – A Food Lover’s Guide
I’ve long extolled the virtues of the wines from the Adriatic-bordering, Italian region of Le Marche. The wines generally over-deliver in quality versus price. And while Le Marche might not have the cache of Tuscany, it’s for that very reason that this region is still able to offer wines at bargain deals compared to its Mediterranean big brother.
Neglected by tourists, Le Marche is sparsely populated, but one of Italy’s most serene and beautiful areas. The region is actually quite rural with a population of just over one million people, yet its largest city, Ancona, only claims 100,000 residents. That leaves the majority of the population living in small villages, medieval hilltop towns, and in the country. That country consists of beautiful rolling hills, vineyards, and pastures for raising cattle, sheep, and pigs.
As good as the wines of Le Marche are, the food does not
take a back seat. From sea to mountain, the region’s geography significantly influences its cuisine. Incredibly fresh seafood, truffles, wild mushrooms, chestnuts, wild boar, lamb, olives, and egg pasta play integral roles in the simply prepared and wonderfully delicious local dishes.
Last fall, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in a food and wine trade mission to Marche. Particularly mouth-watering was the lure of attending the white truffle festival in Acqualagna. As with the wines, the food of Le Marche (and the warm hospitality) far exceeded my expectations. I’m pleased to share some of my delicious highlights.
National White Truffle Exhibition in Acqualagna
Held annually in October and November, up to 100,000 visitors make their way to Acqualagna to celebrate the precious white truffle, incidentally selling at around 2,500 euros per kilo. Half the families in Acqualagna are involved in the truffle business and 70% of all truffle sales occur in October through December. If you are lucky, you might be able to convince a “truffle hunter” to take you out with his dogs in search of the valuable tuber.
Events are concentrated around Piazza Mattei, through the streets of the small town, and in a large tented pavilion. White truffles are displayed under glass and weighed on scales like gold. Stands also offer other regional food specialties including mushrooms, honey, cheeses, wines, and cold meats (you could spend days just sampling). Local restaurants offer special menus featuring truffles. We indulged in a multi-course, white truffle laden lunch at La Ginestra (www.ginestrafurlo.it). Everything — crostini with lardo, scrambled eggs, pasta with quail eggs, veal scallopine — was generously finished with freshly shaved white truffles. Decadent and delicious.
Useful tip: While the aroma of white truffles is quite pungent, the flavour is actually quite delicate. Truffle oil should never be used as freely as or as a direct substitute for freshly shaved truffles (too often, chefs really go overboard with truffle oil). The oil in excess comes across as burnt. Only a drop or two is necessary to deliver the essence of the truffle.
The hill town of Campofilone, overlooking the Adriatic, is known for its exquisite, thin egg pasta. The thin, delicate pasta of ‘la Campofilone’ is high quality and made of simple and natural ingredients: durum wheat semolina and very fresh eggs, without adding any water. It is hand rolled, folded in a unique way, and cut by hand with speed and precision. The drying process is quite unique as well. The end product is very thin, supple pasta that maintains its shape and flavour after cooking. A variety of long and short pasta are produced.
The long pasta were generally served with seafood, the short pasta with meat. Some of the standout dishes include tagliatelle with aragosta at La Terrazza in Ancona, strozzapreti with ground beef and radicchio at Trattoria Vecchia Fornace, and the linguine with fresh seafood (langoustines, clams, etc) and a light coating of delicious tomato sauce with hot chilli oil (maybe the best pasta dish I have ever eaten) served tableside at Ristorante Pasqualo.
Olives are a staple in Italy, but the city of Ascoli pays special tribute with its preparation of Olive Ascolane. A regional favourite, the olives are stuffed with a combination of seasoned meats (often veal, chicken, and turkey) and parmigiano-reggiano, breaded and then deep fried. These tasty morsels are frequently served as antipasti at restaurants, but to get the true experience, try them piping hot from a street vendor in town of Ascoli Piceno.
The seafood was some of the freshest and most delicious I have experienced. Everything from fish soups, tuna, swordfish, prawns, langoustines, scampi, clams, mussels, sea snails, sea crickets, oysters, white anchovies, squid, dorado — whether served steamed, baked, fried, with pasta, whole, or tossed in a little olive oil was simply outstanding. La Terrazza which is right on the water in Ancona is a must as is Ristorante Pasqualo in Martinsicuro, in southern Marche — actually just across the river in Abruzzo.
Fortino Napoleonico in Portonovo — built in 1810, this former Napoleonic fort, which was to become part of a land and sea system of fortifications to protect Ancona and to prevent British vessels sailing in the Adriatic from docking for supplies, is now a fully restored hotel and restaurant.