Monday, August 27, 2007
While the streets of Nice fill with Parisians anxious for a whiff of basil and a therapeutic dose of sunlight, I head for parts of the world whose names meet with blank stares - last year the Lozère (France's least-populated region), this year Le Marche.
I'm not quite sure how the name of this Italian region became lodged in my brain, but I've always wondered why so little is written about an area that borders Tuscany, Umbria and Emilia Romagna. Its vast stretches of sandy beach influenced my decision - we were meeting my brother and his family, and the combination of sand and water is the most foolproof way to keep three children under the age of six happy and entertained. Curiously I had never heard much about the cuisine of Le Marche, but I could hardly imagine an Italian region where food is not an obsession.
It was an eight-hour drive from Nice to the village of Piandicastello in the northern part of Le Marche, with only about ten houses but an active social scene. Each night the locals would gather at a communal table overlooking the gentle hills in muted shades of green* for a kind of impromptu party, often retiring to one or the other's house to continue the festivities. Sam and his cousins roamed through the streets (all two of them) freely, bonding with the cats and dogs, and we had that reassuring - and all too rare - feeling that someone would always be looking out for them.
The nearest shops were a few miles away in Tavoleto, but Piandicastello did have its own restaurant, the Osteria di Mirecul. The children instantly took to this restaurant, not only because it had the best tagliatelle al ragù of any they sampled (and they sampled their fair share, since this is the staple dish for children in Le Marche), but for its resident goat, which often sat on the window ledge or ambled into the restaurant. When they got bored of the goat, there were plenty of cats and dogs, too. We adults liked it because no matter how much or how well we ate, we could never make the bill come to more than €10 a person. My favorite dish was a local take on tortelloni filled with beet, ricotta and parmesan and tossed with butter and poppy seeds, but we also had delicious roasted pork, lasagne and artichoke-filled pasta with mushroom sauce.
Fish is also abundant in Le Marche, but because most fish restaurants were near the sea and we were staying in a rather isolated hill town we didn't eat it as often as I would have liked. We did have a unique fish experience in the town of Fano, where a cooperative of fishermen runs the self-service restaurant Al Pesce Azzurro. The idea is to make local fish accessible to everyone, and for €9 each we had the famous meat-stuffed, breaded and deep-fried green olives of Le Marche, followed by tagliatelle with seafood and incredibly tender chunks of octopus stewed with peas, all served up on plastic plates. The restaurant must have seated at least 300 people and was full when we arrived at 1.30pm. On our last day we also headed down to the town of Gabicce Mare, which we had visited many times for its wonderfully organized beaches, for tagliatelle (again!) with prawns and buttery spaghetti alle vongole at the restaurant La Cambusa.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous dish of Le Marche was piadine, made with thin sheets of dough that are cooked on an iron pan and filled with various combinations of meat, cheese and vegetables. In Gabicce Mare, near the beach, was a fast food-style place where the piadine were made to order with fresh dough, proving once again how seriously the Italians take their snacks.
Another discovery was sorbetto, which is not sorbet, as the name might suggest, but granita made with cream that usually comes in two flavors: coffee or lemon. I became quite addicted to the sweet coffee version, which is sometimes served in a champagne glass with a straw. Desserts were not a big feature of Le Marche's cuisine but sorbetti often made the perfect ending to a filling meal.
We took the time to visit a couple of open-air markets, but the selection of produce was limited and we probably would have done better in a larger town such as Fano, whose market is renowned. The best deli I found was Degusteria Raffaello in the stunning town of Urbino, which stocks a lovely selection of wines from the region.
Summer is a time of festivals in this region and a highlight of our trip was the Sagra della pappardella al cinghiale in the town of Gemmano (12-15 August). The entire village filled with tables as an army of cooks served up plate after plate of broad hand-made noodles with chunky tomato-and-wild-boar sauce: yet another excuse to eat and talk, talk and eat. Once again, Italy has taught me how to make each meal an event - not that I needed much encouragement.
* Sorry about the lack of photos to illustrate this - my laptop broke down just after I had downloaded most of the photos from our trip. I am going through Mac laptops at an alarming rate.