La Cucina Marchigiana

Or, how to make much from little

Ascolana Olives
aizram18 / Getty Images

This feature derives from a request: Frank Manocchi asked for a recipe from the Marche region— something his grandmother used to make that they called Pasta Chata or Chot (the spelling is uncertain), which included beef. Alas, we're still looking for it. What I did find is Ricette di Osterie e di Porti Marchigiani, an interesting little book put out by Slowfood Editore, a commendable organization dedicated to fine dining and resisting the encroachments of the fast food vendors, which also publishes all kinds of excellent guides, and, more recently, Ricette Raccontate Marche, a fascinating volume published by Idea Book. The local diet was, they say, almost exclusively vegetarian for the vast majority of the population living inland—shepherds and farmers—and though fish did play a part in the coastal cities, the pickings were still primarily vegetarian: The farmer of the Marche is quite restrained at the table, not so much from necessity as from habit. So much that the families of tenant farmers who enjoy a certain prosperity don't eat much more than those who tighten their belts in the face of hunger. Polenta made from corn, seasoned with oil, cheese, lard, onions, ricotta, tomatoes, greens, legumes, etc.; bread made from a mixture of cornmeal and flour, wine only in the periods of greatest exertion, and salt pork only occasionally: this is the diet of our farmer. Cuts of veal, lamb or chicken only appear at holiday meals and wedding banquets, and then the portions are so lavish that every guest takes something home with him (the introduction to the Slowfood volume, quoting from the Jacini study of rural conditions, 1874).

Though there is more prosperity now, the traditions still shine through.

There's still lots of polenta, wild herbs, especially fennel in the mountains, mushrooms, including truffles (they were once called farmers' cash, because the farmers could sell them to raise cash in the late fall when little else was growing), snails, which were especially popular on meatless days inland where the only fish available was baccalà, and greens. Greens everywhere. Meats do appear more frequently now than they used to, but certainly, don't predominate. And fish does, of course, does play an important role in the diet in the coastal areas, though many of the recipes include ingredients that reveal close ties to the land, for example, wild fennel fronds.

Some Recipes:

The classic thirst quencher, dating back to the Romans.

Olive all'Ascolana
Olives, stuffed with a zesty combination of meat and cheese and fried. Delicious!

Acquacotta di Verdure
Acquacotta means cooked water, and in this case, it's not far off.

A very simple dish that gains its flavor from a deft use of greens and herbs.

Ziti con le Sarde
A simple pasta sauce made with tomatoes and salted sardines by the fishermen of the Marche.

Zesty pasta squares with a grated pepper and cheese.

Minestra di Cardi in Compagnia
A cardoon-based soup from the Marche that's rather similar to minestra maritata (wedding soup).

Tagliatelle con Sugo di Rigaglie di Pollo
Pasta with a rich sauce made with ground beef, giblets, and tomatoes.

Ravioli Pesaresi
In the Marche, they add a tasty hint of lemon to their ravioli.

Polenta con Fagioli, Fave e Cavoli
Polenta with Cabbage and Beans, frugal winter fare.

Polentone con Lumache
Snails and polenta, the rustic fare for a Friday meal up in the mountains where there wasn't any fish. And instructions on preparing snails.

Baccalà in Salsa Piccante
Salt cod in a zesty bell pepper, caper and olive sauce that will also work well with other mildly flavored fish.

Sgombri al Finocchio Selvatico
Mackerel, with a delicate fennel-based sauce.

Agnello Scottadito
Properly grilled lamb is an inspired gift of the Gods.

A simple custard to celebrate weddings and other happy events.

The Wines of the Marches
The authors say they're not as good as those of nearby Tuscany, but my experience with Verdicchio is it can scale to great heights. From the Marche Voyager.

The American International Marchigiana Society
An organization dedicated to spreading the breed in the US.