In the Italian region of Marche, time seems to stand still. Still a largely isolated region, Marche is a wealth of architecture and recipes dating back to Medieval times and beyond. Despite the challenging terrain, the area has been fought over for centuries by invading countries and warring Italian noble families, all seeking to control its central coastline between the Adriatic Sea and the Appenine mountains.
The hills of Marche are littered with Medieval buildings and walls, and unlike many oft-invaded areas, historical architecture has been greatly preserved and simply adapted as necessary to modern uses. It is no wonder, then, that Marche provides a wealth of food tradition for those willing to make the culinary journey.
Marche (meaning literally "march" and referring to the March of Ancona) is surrounded by the better-known and easier-reached regions of Abruzzo, Lazio, Tuscany, Umbria and Emelia-Romagna. Marche is comprised for the most part of the Appenine mountains with a narrow section of Adriatic coastline along the east. It is along the coast that the region's capital city of Ancona sits and lays claim to the Church of St. Ciriaco, a truly grand example of religious architecture from the 1200s. Additionally, the city is home to the Arch of Trajan (1st century) and the Episcopal Palace (built in the 1400s). The rich history of Marche is celebrated in the town of Ascoli Piceno each year on the first Sunday of August with the Tourneo della Quintana, a Medieval-themed festival and knight's tournament where costumes, games and foods of the 15th century are highlighted.
The food culture of Marche has been greatly influenced by other regions and invading peoples throughout its long history, but many farmers cling to local tradition, governing their crops by ancient lunar methods. In the same way that early farmers in the United States relied on a farmer's almanac for timing their work, legend and myth still play a large role in determining which days are auspicious for Marche farmers for planting, harvesting, making wine, making cheese and curing meats.
On the coast, fish and seafood dishes abound. In the hills, chicken and pork are the primary proteins. Creamy sauces made from chicken giblets are used liberally in Marche cooking. Pork recipes rely on generous chunks instead of the traditional thin prosciutto style servings. Since pork is so readily available, there are many type of sausages made in Marche. A hearty favorite local smoked sausage is ciauscolo, crafted with half pork and half pork fat, and well seasoned with salt, pepper, orange peel and fennel seed. Olives grow well in Marche, and are served both on their own and stuffed with savory meat fillings. Grapes, grains, mushrooms and a wide variety of vegetables are found throughout the region, and the tables are graced with simple country Italian cooking at its best.
Cheese-wise, Marche holds its own in the steep competition for great Italian dairy products. Casciotta d'Urbino is a sheep and cow milks hand-pressed into rounds that are then salted and cured in a moist environment, producing a velvety texture. Ambra di Talamello is made from goat, sheep or cow milk and is cured in a pit lined with straw, resulting in an earthy flavor. Cacio La Forma di Limone is a sheep milk cheese made with lemons, then formed into small balls (that look a bit like lemons). It is rubbed with a salt and lemon mixture to cure, and has a refreshingly light lemon tang. Some great pecorino cheeses can be found in the region as well.
Pasta in the Marche region is rich with eggs, with wide noodles like lasagna and papparadelle in the forefront. The region's signature dish vincisgrassi (a pasta casserole with meat sauce) showcases flat pastas and savory meats to their best and most delightful advantage. Other pastas like spaghetti alla chitarra, spaghettini, tagliatelle and maccheroncini have also found their way into Marche dishes. Combined with the freshest local ingredients, pasta is always a welcome addition to Italian country tables. The results are nothing less than a delicious display of cooking marked by confidences handed down from generation to generation. Difficult to get to, but well worth the effort, Marche remains one of Italy's best-kept culinary secrets.