Ask any Italian about Tuscany, Lombardy, or the Veneto and they can rattle off a list of the attractions of these well-known regions. But bring up Le Marche, scrunched between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea in Italy, and they may fall silent.
It’s a mystery why. Less than three hours’ drive from Rome, Le Marche features sandy beaches and great seafood on its Adriatic Coast, rolling hills topped with medieval fortified towns and villages to the west, along with snow-capped peaks in the south. You’ll find a musical heritage, too…composer Rossini was born here.
But come October, the real attraction in Le Marche is white truffles. If you’ve never tasted a truffle, you may not see the point. After all, as the fruiting body of an underground mushroom it doesn’t sound that nice. But don’t be fooled, these “diamonds of the kitchen” are highly prized. In 2007, a single white truffle weighing 1.5 kilos fetched the record price of $330,000.
Truffles have a pungent, mushroom-garlic-walnut aroma and they are used to flavor dishes ranging from risotto to popcorn. The flavor is strongest in the fall when the spores are released, and it diminishes significantly over a period of days: Hence the hefty market price.
You’ll find white truffles only in Italy (there are black ones, too) and the most famous market for them is in the city of Alba, located over 300 miles northwest of Le Marche in the Piedmont region near the Alps. But savvy travelers know that the white truffle festivals in Le Marche rival anything that happens there.
Truffle-hunting season starts in fall, and in the town of San Angelo in Vado, 70 miles west of the capital city Ancona, the annual truffle festival kicks off with a full day of food and wine tastings, truffle hunting demonstrations (trained dogs are used to sniff them out), and cultural activities.
You can visit several local wine cellars, and sample truffle dishes such as tagliatelle al tartufo (ribbons of pasta with truffle cream and sliced truffle), crostini al tartufo (crusts of toasted bread with cheese and sliced truffles) and frittata al tartufo (small omelets stuffed with sliced truffles).
The festivities continue throughout October, and truffle season lasts through December. This year at the market, a kilo of white truffles fetched around $4,200. Intense drought reduced the harvest, but experts say this only means that next year’s crop should be extraordinary.
A visit to the San Angelo region of Le Marche isn’t only about food. You can take a guided tour to the Domus Mito (“House of the Myth”), a recently-discovered First-century Roman noble’s house where mosaic floors capture the lifestyle of its opulent owners. The Domus is open during the truffle fair, but otherwise you will need to contact the local volunteer tourism group to book a guided tour in English.
My favorite side trip though, is to tiny Borgo Pace where locals have restored San Benedetto Abbey as a cultural center. You’ll find a museum and artist’s workshop dedicated to recovering the medieval art of using yellow flowers to make blue dye. Next door, the irregularly-shaped arches in the medieval church act as a sun dial as the slanted rays move along the apse.
Though less well-known than its Tuscan and Umbrian neighbors, Le Marche offers an insight into Italian lifestyle and traditions unfiltered by tourist traps and the artificial attitudes that are often the trade-off for easy access. You won’t find the dizzying avalanche of attractions found in more traveled locales, but you just may make a few fresh discoveries of your own.
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