The Food Maven Diary
Le Marche, Urbino and Black Truffles
I arrived in Italy last Monday and spent most of the week visiting with my friend Giuliana Santalucia and her husband, Mario Bonacucina (his last name means “good cooking”!). (Did you know that Italian women keep their father’s name and use their husband’s name only as a middle name, if at all?) Giuliana and Mario live in a couple-of-hundred-years-old house in Le Marche, one of the least populated and least traveled regions of Italy. It is in Central Italy, just north of Abruzzo, south of Emilia Romagna (the beginning of the north) and east of Umbria. It has an Adriatic Sea coast.
Le Marche is green and gorgeous. It is all heavily forested mountains and rolling, cultivated hills with many different crops, including corn (creamy polenta country!), olives for oil and for the table, and vineyards for wine and table grapes. Verdicchio is the most famous wine, a white, although I found Rosso Picena and Rosso Conero, both reds, very satisfying, if simple. Some of the mountains even reach the sea, where there is also some flat land that features what I hear are great beaches. I didn’t get that far to see for myself, or to eat the famous brodetto of Le Marche, which is what they call seafood soup/stew on the Adriatic coast.
We didn’t get to the sea because there was plenty to see in several of the small towns near Giuliana and Mario, who live in a minuscule village called Acquosi, near the ever-so slightly larger village of Gagliole, near the small town of Matelica. As everywhere in Italy, you can go to the smallest place and find beautiful things to see – churches that date back to the 11th century, art in churches, castle ruins on hilltops, Roman and Greek archeological sites, and small museums that feature the art and archeology of the area. Every town also has its own food specialty, which, as you might imagine, I always try to seek out.
Giuliana and Mario are also close to Camerino, a Renaissance period town where there is a university. The locals love to point out that although the permanent population of Camerino is a mere 7,000, it also houses 10,000 students. Actually, I heard several different numbers from different people, but all with the same point – the students outnumber the residents. Young people, of course, make for a very lively street and café scene – I am supposing night life, too.
Sometimes the towns themselves are works of art. Such is the case with Camerino, Ascoli Piceno in the south of the region, and Le Marche’s most famous city, Urbino, which was our big excursion from Giuliana and Mario’s home. Although not very far, it took us nearly two hours to get there because, though the roads in Le Marche, as in most of Italy, are excellent, there are no major highways leading to Urbino. It was well worth the time in the car. The landscape was gorgeous and the company was great – Giuliana, who always makes me laugh; another friend, Teresa Tibaldi, Baronessa Cecilia (the driver), and Bob Harned.
Urbino was the birthplace of the famous painter Raphael and the seat of the Duke Federico of Urbino, whose portrait, painted by Piero della Francesca, the 15th century master, is iconic. I’m sure you’ve seen it. The duke has a Jimmy Durante shnozola and wears a distinctive cylindrical red hat with a flat top. Urbino looks like the movie set for a Renaissance period drama, and indeed a movie was being shot there the day we visited. We toured the Duke’s grand palace, filled with paintings that he commissioned and that I learned about in college art history. Then we headed straight to a café to eat one of the city’s food specialties, crescia, which is a flat bread where the dough is layered with fat so it becomes flaky; let’s say it is a flatbread version of puff pastry. It reminded us of Chinese scallion pancake without the scallions. Actually, it is essentially piadina, the flat bread of Romagna to the north, but richer. You eat it with cheese, and/or prosciutto, which is another famous product of Le Marche, or one of the many salamis of the region.
The ham of Carpegna is the most famous prosciutto in the region, but there are small-production hams sold all over. My friend Mario even makes some himself. His is dense but not very salty and one morning Giuliana fried a few slices with eggs because she thought Bob and I were missing our American bacon and eggs, which we weren’t, as we hardly ever indulge in that these days. But who could complain? It was fabulous. Of course, we bought some local prosciutto to take home to Azienda Seliano and I bought two local cheeses. Pecorino di fossa is a sheep’s milk cheese aged in a well or hole (long story/legend of origination, but not now). Casciotta, which I have been eating for breakfast these last few days, is a very young pecorino, sliceable but soft and creamy with a good tang, but not so strong that its flavor is too much for me in the morning.
The big deal food of Giuliana’s area, the province of Macerata, which is the central part of Le Marche, is a kind of salami called ciauscolo (pronounced cha-oo-sco-low). Giuliana took us to a butcher whom she thinks makes the best near her, and I fell in love. It is basically normal Italian pork sausage, like you would eat fresh, but seasoned a little more highly with salt and pepper and ground much finer. I read that ciauscolo is so soft it can be spread, like pate, but not this one. Packed in a natural casing, the salami is then lightly smoked, just for aging purposes, not flavor (you don’t taste smoke), then aged for several months. It is soft but holds its shape for slicing.
What else? Another big dish of Le Marche is a type of baked lasagna called vincisgrassi. Sounded to me like “fat wins” or “winning fat,” which would figure given how rich everyone says it is. But the word is the Italianization of the name of an Austrian general, Prince Windischgratz, who was commander of Austrian forces stationed in The Marches in the mid 19th century, defending these papal lands from Garibaldi’s unification forces. In any case, no one these days seems to agree on the recipe. Everyone does it a little differently, although the traditional recipes call for a sauce made with chicken liver, calves’ brains and sweetbreads, and a very thinly rolled, egg pasta flavored with sweet wine. It is a very rich dish that always features a meat ragu made with very little tomato. Giuliana made her ragu with duck and beef. There are also layers of grated Parmigiana and béchamel (white sauce).
I was surprised to see how much the Marchigiani (pronounced Marky-Johnny), the people of Le Marche, love duck. Duck is not usual in Italy, certainly not in Southern Italy where I spend most of my time. When we first arrived, Giuliana greeted us with both cappellacci and cappelletti, big meat-stuffed “hats” of pasta and small ones, both filled with a mixture of duck and beef, breadcrumbs and the meats’ juices. Her sauce – this time a red ragu -- had chunks of both meats, too. When I saw ducks in the butcher shop, I realized how she did this without the sauce becoming fatty and heavy, as would result with our Pekin ducks. The ducks in Le Marche have legs with as much meat as capon, big tender breasts, too, and very little fat under the skin.
Without listing every delicious bite we ate – oh yes, pigeon sautéed with sage and garlic, served on toast to absorb every last drop of juices and herby flavor -- let me just say that we enjoyed every meal at home, not in restaurants, except for the lunch in Urbino. Even something as simple as sautéed zucchini, with just a bit of onion, was sensational. I do have to add, however, that all our vegetables and fruits – grapes, apples and pears -- were organically grown by Mario.
Okay – here’s my final word on Le Marche for now: It has among the longest lived people in Europe. Mario’s mother and father are in their late 90s and still in good health. And Giuliana’s 88-year-old mother and 90-year-old father are still going strong, working in the garden, keeping house, cooking, and looking after their great grandchildren.
Last night we went to a truffle festival in Colliano, a mountain town only about 30 minutes from Cecilia’s farms in Paestum. Besides baskets of the local fragrant black truffles that cost a pittance compared to what you’d pay in a store, and shockingly cheap compared to NYC prices, there were venders of honey, cheese, chestnuts, locally grown beans, and nougat (torrone). One booth had the best sfogliatelle I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten (too many of) the best in Naples. These had crunchy but not at all tough or heavy pastry stuffed with a chestnut-chocolate puree instead of the usual ricotta filling.
Today, for lunch, I made a simple risotto using white wine and vegetable broth so we could indulge in one of our black treasures. We are saving the rest to feed our Cook at Seliano group when they arrive next week.
Besides the sfogliatella I ate at the fair, I also bought some musso, which is boiled beef cheek. Cecilia loves this stuff so we always buy it whenever we see a cart selling it – at fairs or sometimes just on the street for no reason. Usually it is as chewy as rubber, but we’re always hoping it won’t be. This time it was actually tender, and so delicious sprinkled with salt and drenched in lemon juice that we had to buy some to take home on the way out of town.
WHAT I’M NOT COOKING
One of the beauties of staying at Azienda Seliano, Cecilia’s farm in Paestum, is that I have women in the kitchen who take good care of me. After 15 years of coming here, and some of them visiting me in Brooklyn, we are all good friends, and I have learned much from them.
A couple of nights ago, Eugenia, who assists me in classes, made pasta with zucchini and ricotta. This recipe is in The Southern Italian Table, my last book, but the version I have in the book is from Geraldina, my other assistant, who makes it slightly differently. Gerardina’s recipe is the sample recipe on Amazon.com.
There is zucchini up the kazoo here, as I think there still is at home in the farmer’s markets, so I am offering now another of my favorite zucchini recipes. It is not in the book, and it makes delicious what I think of as a pretty boring vegetable.
ZUCCHINE IN AGRODOLCE
Sweet and Sour Zucchini
There is a saying in the south: You can cook zucchini a thousand different ways but in the end it still just tastes like zucchini. In this Sicilian prepartion, however, the zucchini is carrying other flavors, not so much offering its own. Even if you are not a lover of anchovies, try this. Their flavor will not be in the forefront, but a backgound bass note. I have served this to anchovy haters and they hadn’t a clue to its secret ingredient.
4 medium zucchini (about 1 1/2 pounds)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed1 rounded tablespoon pine nuts
4 anchovy fillets, preferably from whole salted anchovies, but those under oil will do
2 tablespoons raisins, soaked for 15 minutes in cold water, drained
1/4 cup red wine vinegar1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cut the zucchini into thick batons: Start by cutting each lengthwise in half, then each half in thirds lengthwise, then cut crosswise in thirds.
In a 12-inch skillet, warm the oil and garlic together over very low heat. Cook the garlic several minutes, pressing it down occasionally, until it is soft but not colored. Remove the garlic. <!--[endif]-->
Turn the heat to medium-high, then fry the zucchini until lightly browned and tender, from 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the batons. Remove with a slotted spoon. Pour off any oil in the pan, just leaving a film.
Reduce the heat to medium; add the pine nuts and anchovies to the pan. With a fork, mash the anchovies. Cook for 2 minutes. The anchovies will melt.
Add the raisins and vinegar and return the zucchini to the pan. Sprinkle with sugar. Toss until the vinegar has almost entirely evaporated.
Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
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