The typical wines and foods of Piceno can be enjoyed at their best at the “Sagre” – festivals where tourists can find the most genuine and original products.
Each locality has its own speciality, with a wide range of items, ranging from the Sagra of fried tagliatelle in Monterubbiano to the Sagra of polenta with snails in Altidona, the Sagra della Fregnaccia (a type of pasta) in Amandola, the Sagra dei Maccheroncini in Campofilone, the Sagra della Rana (frogs) in Belmonte Piceno, and one devoted to sausages in Carassai, to name but a few.
In Acquasanta Terme, in October, there is the very popular Festa d’Autunno in honour of the exquisite Laga chestnut and foods from the woods.
The mosaic of the land produces a mosaic of flavours, which bring together a whole variety of traditions and cultures from the mountains, the inland hills, and the Adriatic coast.
With its mild climate, the peculiarity of a land that is ideal for farming, and the industriousness of its inhabitants, Piceno offers a huge range of traditional flavours and products: from honey to cheese, preserved meats and typical sweets, to the water that gushes so abundantly from its springs, and its high-quality wines and oils.
It is hard to suggest a particular itinerary for tasting and purchasing the exquisite local specialities of the Marche directly from the producers, for there are so many to choose from: Ascoli olives, ewe’s cheese, ciauscolo (a type of salami spread), Campofilonemaccheroncini, fig nougat, vino cotto, pork products, typical pastries and desserts…
The best thing for the gourmet to do is to rely on instinct and just go to some of the many festivals and gastronomic fairs that take place in Piceno all year round.
During these events, special food and wine tours are arranged to the areas where the most important typical products actually come from.
These include samplings, wine and extra-virgin oil tastings, visits to wine cellars, conferences, and guided tours to discover the specialities and highlights of the territory.
The list of typical products includes both wild and cultivated plants, and foods made with special recipes.
It should be remembered that agricultural products also include the fruits of the woods, such as chestnuts, mushrooms and truffles.
Marrons (marroni) are grown in a number of areas in Piceno, close to the city of Ascoli, and in the upper reaches of the Valle del Tronto.
In the autumn, one has a good chance of coming across one of the many festivals devoted to this exquisite fruit, which is created by grafting chestnut trees.
Mushrooms are another of Nature’s gifts: there are two hundred species of mushrooms in the mountains of Piceno, but the most sought-after is the cèpe (Boletus), which is perfect for a whole variety of recipes.
It can be eaten raw, sliced and cooked in oil, with garlic and parsley, coated with breadcrumbs and fried, or roasted over the fire.
The mysterious truffle, which requires mycorrhized trees and special soil, grows in a number of areas in Piceno and is the star of important festivals.
Edible varieties of truffle are the white truffle, the black truffle, the summer truffle and the “bianchetto” spring truffle.
The area has historically been one of cerealproduction, and it is particularly well known for its “farro” (emmer).
Cereals are one of the main ingredients in a typical dish made in the Ripatransone area: this is the ciavarro, based on legumes and cereals dressed with a hot sauce.
This dish, which is typical of peasant cuisine, was traditionally made on 1 May, the starting date of the “fine season”.
At the end of the winter, a number of legumes (lentils, chickling peas, beans, broad beans) and cereals (emmer, wheat, millet) were left over in the pantry, and it is precisely these ingredients that end up in the soup.
The unchallenged queen of Piceno cuisine is the stuffed olive – the oliva farcita all’ascolana.
This speciality is made only with the tender Ascoli olive, which is grown in a very small area, and indeed solely in the olive orchards that surround the city.
The Ascoli olive, which has been known since Roman times, is large, fleshy and sweet.
It is stuffed with a mixture of various types of meat and parmesan cheese, and then coated with bread crumbs and fried in boiling olive oil.
Olives are used to make olive oil in the traditional manner in numerous oil mills dotted around the countryside.
You can taste the oil before purchasing it directly from the producer.
Oil production in the area (of the 160 oil mills in the Marche, no fewer than 70 are in Piceno) has a very long history for already in the Middle Ages, oil de Marchia was so famous for its quality that it was demanded in lieu of tolls (the so-called Ripatico) from ships that docked at ports on the Po River.
One notable form of fresh pasta is the maccheroncini di Campofilone, a long egg pasta that is typical of Campofilone in the province of Ascoli Piceno, and the star of a very famous sagra.
Maccheroncini are extremely slender strands of the thinnest rolled pasta, cut with sharp knives.
Known ever since the fifteenth century as “maccheroncini fini fini“, the pasta contains a large number of eggs: ten for every kilo of durum wheat flour.
It cooks very quickly and remains porous, and together with its extreme thinness, this makes it ideal for both soups and with sauces (traditionally, a meat sauce with chicken, veal, or pork seasoned with nutmeg and dusted with pecorino cheese).
Seaside localities are proud of their brodetto alla sambenedettese, a highly original recipe which calls for no fewer than twelve types of fish, and vinegar, peppers, and green tomatoes.
This dish is prepared in a very special way, with the various fish being put in the pot in very strict order, without ever being mixed.
Pork takes pride of place in the meat dishes.
The insaccati – sausages and salami – are distinctive features of local gastronomy, and they include ciauscolo, a very special local product that is typical of the rural area of northern Piceno.
It is a sort of salame spread, and is particularly suitable for making “crostini” (canapès).
Made in industrial or cottage-industry dairies, one of the cheeses that is particularly worthy of note is fresh or seasoned pecorino, which is made from the milk of ewes that graze freely.
Pastries and desserts are a subject unto themselves, with countless typical products linked to festivities and anniversaries.
Christmas is time for the frestingo, a humble homemade cake filled with dried figs, candied and dried fruits, and a little sugar.
The tradition at Easter involves preparing piconi(or cacioni) – baked ravioli – and cheese pizza, which is always present, together with salami, on Easter Day.
Carnival time brings fried pastries (castagnole, milk shakes and chestnut or ricotta ravioli, andcicerchiata).
For San Martino (St Martin’s Day, in November), the people in the Monsampolo area maketorrone di fichi, an ancient recipe for fig nougat using traditional ingredients (dried figs, candied fruits, almonds and cinnamon).
Peaches are a speciality of Acquaviva Picena: they look like normal fruit, but are filled with chocolate.
Lastly, one special sweet in the Ascoli area is the fave dei morti, little marzipan pastries made to commemorate the dead.
Their origin goes back to an age-old ritual: in the classical world, beans were scattered on the coffin during funerals, for life is born of the dead, just as fruits are born of seeds, and people believed that broad beans contained the tears of the dead.
Another classic of Piceno is the Anisetta Meletti, a typical liqueur that has achieved international fame.
It is made with green aniseed, the plant that gives it its name and its characteristic aroma.
The aniseed is picked in the clayey hills at the foot of Monte dell’Ascensione.
Anisetta was first created in 1870 by Silvio Meletti, then proprietor of the historic cafè that bears his name, when he reformulated a recipe used by his mother.
Another typical product of the Piceno countryside is vino cotto – literally, “cooked wine” – which is made by boiling grape must.
This is then poured into small wooden casks, which are never left entirely empty.
The recipe for vino cotto is very ancient, and is mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (1st cent.).
It is a work of ingenuity, not of nature but of man, for the must needs to be boiled down to two thirds of its quantity, and must be cooked only when the moon is in conjunction with the sun and thus cannot be seen.
An invigorating drink, vino cotto helped give strength during tiring work in the country such as harvesting and threshing, when it was imbibed with a special movement of the trufa.
This ceramic container is characteristic of the Marche countryside and it helped keep the contents cool for a long time.
In country areas there was an authentic culture of vino cotto, and every peasant would have a cask of it in the cellar for grand occasions.
When a baby boy was born, a little cask of vino cotto was put away, to be opened only on the day of his wedding.
Mothers used to massage the arms and legs of their children with vino cotto to strengthen them.