Food & Drink

Made in Marche: Pork and polenta

When I arrived in Ancona, the small propeller-driven plane flew over the Marche region. Below, I saw hill after hill laid out in a beautiful mosaic, with one small farm after another. No agribusiness here. It made me wonder if I would have seen a similar view if I flew into Charlotte 50 years ago.

The Marche is in central Italy on the Adriatic coast. The region is rich in food products, so it offers great diversity. The region has about 100 miles of coast, so seafood is prevalent. Clams, mussels, sardines, shrimp, monkfish, John Dory, cod, cuttlefish and sea snails are common in the cuisine.

The area has mountains and an abundance of game, particularly Cinghiale – wild boar – and rabbit, as well as mushrooms and plentiful truffles. The mountains and hills also produce wine grapes, mainly Rosso Conero a nice medium-body red, and Verdicchio. Verdicchio can run from dry sparkling wine to sweet, and it pairs wonderfully with many of the region's seafood and vegetable dishes.

Pork is king in the area, but beef is popular as well. The region raises a breed of cattle called the Grassa Marchiagano that is said to rival the quality of famous Chiania beef of Tuscany.

We cooked a lot of pork in this class. As pork-loving country, the Marche is almost like North Carolina. Traditionally, almost all dishes were started with lard instead of olive oil, since lard was more plentiful and cheaper. There has been an evolution and now people generally start dishes with a 50/50 mix of olive oil and lard.

The area uses eggs in its sfoglia (pasta). The chef teaching us said it has only been in the last 50 years that they started to use Grano Duro (durum wheat, or semolina) in their pasta. Before that, they only used soft wheat because that was what was grown in the region.

The recipe I'm sharing this week is one of the most characteristic peasant dishes of the Marche, Cresc Tajat con Sugo Finto (pretend sauce). It was made to use leftover polenta to make pasta, saving on white flour. The leftover polenta (grits) are mixed with flour to make a pasta dough. The sauce is called “pretend sauce” because it is not a meat sauce. It was a dish of the poor and only used a little pork for flavoring. The day before you want to make this, serve polenta (or grits) as part of your dinner and save the leftovers to make this.