Le Marche: Italy’s next Tuscany
To begin today’s lesson on the Italian region of Le Marche, lets start with the orientation to the other regions and the pronunciation of the name. It is one of the three central regions, from West to East, Tuscany, Umbria, and then Le Marche. The name translates to English as “The Marches” but the Italian (lay MAR-kay) usually does not require extensive language prowess. I delight in presenting this one as many of my dear friends are born and raised Marchigiani (that one is harder than the region’s name).
The history of Le Marche requires a bit of digging. Prior to the Romans, little is known of the region’s inhabitants. Tribes like the coastal Piceni and the mountain-dwelling Umbri populated the area but unlike the Etruscans, left little more than a name. Similar to much of Italy, what follows are ruling powers from anywhere but Le Marche and numerous battles in between. Romans, Barbarians, French, Spanish, and Popes all ruled over the region from afar. The brief period of peace known as the Renaissance allowed for centers of art and learning to flourish, like the exemplary court of Duke Federico of Montefeltro in Urbino.
What You Should See There
Le Marche has been most frequently visited for “sand and sun” beach holidays in resort towns like Pesaro and Senigallia. The busy port of Ancona is also an incoming and outgoing ferry hub for Croatia, Turkey, and Greece. Traveling inland, you can find charming towns and mountain villages nearly untouched by the tourist hoards prevalent in other areas of Italy. Urbino’s centro storico is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. A must here is the iconic Palazzo Ducale of Federico da Montefeltro which is not only a stunning bit of architecture but also houses the Museo Nazionale delle Marche (numerous important works of Piero della Francesca), a vast 15th century domestic network of cellars, kitchens, laundry rooms, stables, and an ice room in the basements, and an Archeology Museum that hints at the Duke’s Roman predecessors. For the music lover, a stop in Macerata for the Sferisterio Opera Festival presents an opportunity to enjoy one of the premier opera venues in all of Europe. The open-air arena dates back to 1819, with the first opera performed here in 1914, and has been attracting world-class musicians ever since.
What You Should Eat There
Along the coast, feel free to gorge on the fresh fish, while inland there is a plethora of rustic dishes using local ingredients: mushrooms, truffles, and roast meat. My friends noted that to cook the most emblematic dish of the region, I’d need to make Vincisgrassi, a rich, tomato-less baked lasagna. So if you see that on a menu, read no further, and order the dish post-haste. Of course if you stumble into one of the seasonal sagre (culinary festivals) order one of everything, as it will be freshest, most indigenous menu available in town. To wash these yummy vittles down, always ask for the local wine. I’m particular to whites (greatly influenced by my dearest Marchigiana friend’s dislike of red wines) and so is this region. The Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi is green-tinged and pairs perfectly with the fish. In general, if, like my friend, you are not a fan of reds, the various Verdicchios of the region have the strength to stand by many of the inland plates as well.
Bring Le Marche to Your Kitchen Table
Last week, as Chicago’s teaser of a spring was bursting forth, I stepped out for a sunny walk and to pick up the tasty products Eataly was kind enough to provide for my personal culinary journey to Le Marche. They had selected a lovely cut of guanciale for use in a Pasta alla Marchigiana and the Cedroni mustard sauce. While at Eataly, Andrea in Chicago’s wine department guided me in selecting a fabulous 2007 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Villa Bucci Riserva from the three Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi they had on hand. He noted how it would hold up the best to the products in my Eataly basket. The pasta recipe seemed straightforward enough; guanciale batons cooked with long slivers of red onion, garlic, an red pepper flakes, tossed with fettucine and topped with pecorino. What I’ve found to be true of Italian cooking is that it is deceptively challenging. Simple, quality ingredients come together well enough but like fashion vs. innate style, knowing how to make each of the simple ingredients sing in harmony takes some level of mastery. I can’t say mine turned out perfectly, but as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day and with practice, I hope to master this dish like an Italian nonna! Although my pasta dish wasn’t the most scrumptious, undeterred, I ventured on with a grilled pork loin with the mustard sauce. This was perfection, pairing perfectly with the Verdicchio. I love looking at travel, cooking, and life as big adventures. In each, the right attitude and a good wine make for a positive outcome, no matter the twists and turns of a moment!
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