Marching to Marche: Hunt for the big white...truffle, and the best region of Italy you’ve never heard of

by Janice Nieder, a specialty food consultant in New York for 12 years. Now a freelance writer, her articles have appeared in International Travel News, Runner's World, San Francisco Journal for Physicians, Slow Food USA, San Francisco Professional Food Society News, Business Women's Journal, Marina Times, Norway Post, airline magazines and numerous websites.

"Even if you ask an Italian who has traveled extensively through the country about the region of Marche (pronounced Mar-Kay) you will likely be greeted by a blank stare. Yet, I managed to stumble upon this secret spot on a food safari to Italy, last year, when a small group of culinary enthusiasts got together to hunt the Great White Truffle, known to botanists as the Tuber magnatum Pico.
These pricey little nuggets, cloaked in an earthen sheath, have inspired gastronomic pilgrimages for centuries. We had heard that the tiny town of Alba is overrun with truffle addicts during the season which for white truffles is between October and December. So to meet the demand inferior truffles were brought in from China, the Balkans and other areas decidedly un-Italian.
We decided to start our tour last October in the quieter Tuscan truffledom of San Miniato, a fortified hilltop city located mid-way between Pisa and Florence. It seemed a good choice because the largest white truffle in the world, weighing 2,520 grams was found here in 1954, and presented to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. We set off in search, if not for fortune, then at least for lunch.

After five days of feasting and fun under the Tuscan sun, with our palates becoming jaded and our stomachs full, we wondered how the undiscovered world of the Marche could possibly measure up.

Wedged between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea, which puts it right behind the knee of the Italian boot, the anonymous Marche evokes images of a bucolic yet somewhat cubist painting, featuring snow-topped peaks, white sandy beaches, undulating hills quilted with olive groves, vineyards, medieval fortified cities, turreted castles, Renaissance palaces, and rose-toned brick houses. Although it is quite accessible, only about a 2.5 hour drive from Rome and connected by short daily flights from Milan, Marche seems shielded from the rest of Italy. Its serene setting is perhaps largely responsible for an unmistakable tranquility in the people. This is a land where time is told by the tolling of the church bells, so even our group of harried Americans quickly adapted to the slower pace, by leaving our cell phones at the hotel, strolling aimlessly around town, and enjoying the leisure three hour dinners.

The Adriatic yields some of Italy’s finest seafood, while the green pastures and fragrant wild herbs on the livestock-filled hills are responsible for its intensely flavorful meats. Marche’s cuisine is extremely regional. Each small area boasts its own specialties based on traditional foods that are gathered from the fields, forests, and the sea.

Our visit began in Pesaro, probably the most frequented city in the region, because of its popular seaside resort area. This area is surprisingly unsophisticated -- with a rather old –fashioned, middle-class family feel to it. Yet only a 20 minute walk brings you to another world: upscale, elegant boutiques; cutting-edge designer furniture stores, and enough art and culture to keep you busy for days.

Often referred to as the the City of Music, Pesaro was the birthplace of the great composer, Gioacchino Rossini. He bequeathed his entire fortune to the city which used the money to open the Conservatory of Music, and the Rossini Foundation, which annually organizes the prestigious Rossini Festival. Pesaro was also a center for artisans producing Majolica, colorfully painted earthenware, that often depicts historical scenes. The Civic Museum has a superb collection and fine examples are found in many Pesaro boutiques.

As for the food -- Marche could go toe-to-toe with Tuscany. Not surprisingly, seafood dishes reign supreme here. A favorite preparation is Brodetto which, if made properly, combines no fewer than thirteen different species of fish, topped with garlic rubbed bread. Verdicchio, the most reputed local white DOC wine with its distinctly bitter finish, is an excellent accompaniment to the Adriatic’s varied culinary offerings.

Urbino, commonly referred to as the jewel in Marche’s crown, was our next stop as we headed inland. This ancient cultural town is Raphael’s birthplace and home to the oldest private university in Italy. The large student population lends an air of exuberance to this culturally and historically important town -part of which is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the whole town is captivating the “jewel” has to be the magnificent Ducal Palace, commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro. The duke was the quintessential Rennaisance man and always opened his court to the world’s finest artists, musicians, architects, and scientists. He combined many of their creative ideas in building the palace. One example can be seen in his study, which is entirely covered in painstakingly detailed trompe l’oeil woodwork, much of it designed by Botticelli. After viewing the amazing architecture and excellent art collection, visitors are shown the working quarters in the basement, the kitchen, with its unique chilling system, and the stables.

Because we have left the coast, the cuisine here is quite a contrast from Pesaro’s. Lamb, wild boar, extra-lean beef, and pork in all forms play central roles, often supported by handmade pasta or polenta. Vincisgrassi, the signature dish of the region, is made by layering ribbons of pasta with an intense veal ragu, chicken livers, pancetta, slathered with béchamel, mozzarella, parmesan cheese, and crowning it all, shaved truffles. Other local specialties include Ciauscolo, an intensely rich spreadable pork salami and porchetta, the always popular boned suckling pig stuffed with wild fennel, herbs, and garlic and spit roasted over a wood fire.

After such hearty entrées it is still typical to finish a meal with a cheese course. Marche is home to a number of unique cheeses, that combine ancient techniques with the superior indigenous ingredients. Formaggio di Fossa is one such example--this sheep’s milk cheese is aged inside the caves of soft tufa rock in the nearby hills. The process begins by first burning straw inside the cave to reduce the humidity. Then the cheese is put inside and the caves are tightly sealed for 100 days. This results in an organically shaped product that is widely sought after for its earthy, almost truffle-like flavor. So popular is this cheese that every year on November 15th, the caves are opened and a festival honoring the Formaggio di Fossa is held.

Truffles, the overriding theme of our travels, of course would turn up again. We were surprised to learn that Aqualagna, a small town of just 4000 people just south of Urbino, is the dominant truffle-producing center of Italy. Two-thirds of the country’s truffles are found here, and the National Truffle Fair showcases the bounty on select days in late October and early November. Truffles not only appear alone in all their splendor, but also in many unique local products that incorporate this white diamond at zircon prices. Some favorites were the truffle honey which is spectacular poured over pecorino cheese, truffle butter, truffle oil, mushroom-truffle spreads for crostini, dried truffle pasta, truffled cheeses, and even some chocolate truffle candies infused with white truffle.

I had come in search of truffles, but even more rewarding was sniffing out an under-discovered paradise. The people of Marche have been living the “slow-food” life for centuries, long before the slow-food movment came into fashion. Between the warmth of the people, the beauty of the scenery, and the discovery of food, Italy doesn’t get much better than this, but remember, it’s our little secret."


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