Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Venturing Further Afield
Italy is a country of regions. In fact, until the late 1800s, Italy did not exist as a unified country, but as a collection of autonomous states, governed by a variety of princes, including the Pope himself. Some statistics we read somewhere suggest that, unlike in Britain and America where many young people flock to the major metropolises to find work before returning "home" later on, Italians tend to remain in the area they grew up in for life. Thus, history and a lesser degree of centralization leads to strong regional and sub-regional identities, which translate into things as diverse as strict adherence to the local football (soccer) team, impenetrable local dialects and, boon for the gourmand tourist, regionally-available dishes and wines.
In an earlier post, we covered some of the highlights of Tuscany, so now, for the more intrepid traveler, or one with more time, we're looking slightly further afield to the adjacent regions of Le Marche, Emilia-Romagna and Umbria. We cannot hope to do justice to the variety and splendor of these three regions in just this one post, instead we offer you some tasty morsels of information to whet your appetite and get you started.
Perhaps the least-known of these three regions is Le Marche, pronounced lay markay and sometimes known as "The Marches" in English. To the east of Tuscany and bordering the Adriatic Sea, Le Marche is almost completely undiscovered compared to Tuscany and Umbria. Having said that, the string of seedy beach resorts south of Rimini (in Emilia-Romagna) are a watchword among Europeans for tasteless seaside development, in much the same way as Spain's Costa del Sol. On the upside, however, the rest of Le Marche, from its beautiful Renaissance towns of Urbino and Ascoli Piceno, to the peaceful hill-towns around Fermo, and pretty little seaside resorts on the Conero Peninsula, remains unspoilt by the ravages of mass tourism.
Le Marchigiani - the Marche locals - are reputed to eat more meat than any other Italians, and you'll find grigliata mista di carne, or mixed grilled meats, including game dishes like, stuffed pigeons (piccione ripieno) and rabbit cooked with fennel (coniglio in porchetta) on menus across the region. Given it's long coastline though, seafood is also a major component of the diet, and the local version of bouillabaisse, brodetto, which must be made with 13 species of fish, no more, no less, is a particular speciality around Ancona. For more information about all things Le Marche, visit Marche Voyager.
Lying to the north of Tuscany and spanning almost all the way across the country, Emilia-Romagna is Italy's dairyland. Like its American counterpart, Wisconsin, the landscape of Emilia-Romagna is relatively flat, only rising in the south at the foothills of the Appennines. However, unlike Wisconsin, this region is famous for its culture, beautiful cities and stunning food. Emilia-Romagna is one of Italy's most prosperous regions and is home to dairy giant Parmalat, luxury car-makers Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini, and electronics company Marconi. The beautiful historic cities of Bologna, Parma, Modena, and Ferrara offer fantastically intact Renaissance and Medieval architecture. Bologna is also famous for its university, which, founded in 1088, is the oldest continually operating university in the world.
Gastronomy, however, is what the region is synonymous with. Modena is world-famous for its aged balsamic vinegars, Parma for its cheese (parmiggiano-reggiano) and its ham (prosciutto di parma), and Bologna for lasagna, stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini, and, of course, spaghetti bolognese. The combination of the area's dairy farming traditions, its location just south of the grain-growing Po Valley, and the abundant game found in the Appennine foothills makes for a fattening combination of luscious dishes with cream, butter, cheese, meat and pasta. We encourage our guests to indulge themselves in the local cuisine and not to tell their cardiologist. To learn more about the region, visit the official Emilia-Romagna tourist board website.
While it has become very much more popular in recent years, Umbria is still seen as Tuscany's poorer and less refined neighbor. In fact, Tuscans tend to look down their noses at Umbria in the same way that you would stare pitifully at your neighbors' ginger-haired child. However, this is unfair (the Tuscany/Umbria thing, not the ginger discrimination), as Umbria has much to offer the tourist, including smaller crowds, better deals, and charming rustic countryside, which is reputed to resemble Tuscany fifty years ago.
The towns of Spoleto and Gubbio are known for their architecture and history, Assisi for its Basilica to its most famous son, Saint Francis, and Orvieto for its stunning cathedral and eponymous white wine. Lesser-known attractions of this bucolic region include the hill-town of Norcia.
Not just famous for being the place where my mother-in-law to-be's family hail from, though that would be sufficient to warrant a pilgrimage, Norcia is famous throughout Italy for its hams. In fact, so famous is the town for its pork products that the word Norcineria is synonymous with charcuterie/cold cuts. The most celebrated of these products is prosciutto crudo, but the quality of others like capacollo (gabagool), pancetta (unsmoked bacon) and guanciali (cured pigs' cheeks) is also renowned nation-wide. Boar sausage is another Norcian delicacy. Rumor has it that Norcians also do a mean line in fresh bread rolls... For more information about Umbria and its many treasures, visit Umbria Online.