Mind your cart

Every morning the trattoria is open (every day except Sundays and holidays), the first thing Mirella and Marco do is go to the supermarket to buy produce, bread, meat, and any other ingredients they need for the day. Instead of buying large quantities and sticking them in storage, they buy just what is needed (or a bit extra), to make sure everything is fresh (and to waste less). I tag along to learn what I can about how to select quality ingredients, and because we stop to get colazione (breakfast) on the way back to the trattoria. 

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My favorite part of the market is the produce section, a rainbow of bright colors. 

Seeing the green tomatoes for sale was surprising the first time I saw them. I have since learned they are tangy but tasty.

Most of the produce at the supermarket comes from Italy, though there is some fruit that is imported from other European countries, especially Spain. Marco and Mirella check the labels carefully and only pick Italian fruits and vegetables. 

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Some of the red peppers are nearly as big as my head. 

The aisles are narrow, so most people park their carts to one side and carry the fruits and vegetables over to them. If you're not paying attention, it is easy to put something into the wrong cart, as I did when I unknowingly put a kilogram of cherries (from Sicily) into a stranger's cart. 

When Marco informed me of my mistake, I rushed to correct the situation, managing to turn a minor mishap into a mess. In my haste, I grabbed the clamshell of cherries with one hand, which popped open as I picked it up. Half the cherries poured out, into the cart and onto the floor (in the aisle where everyone who comes into the store passes through, no less). I dropped to my hands and knees, scooping up cherries as quickly as I could, feeling like a klutz. (Have you ever tried to pull cherries out of the metal wicker of a shopping cart without mashing them? It's not so easy.) So much for being inconspicuous. 

An embarrassing incident, but I did learn an important lesson: Keep your eyes on the cart and both hands on the cherries. 

Fresh fish at 4am

One of the first non-trattoria-related things I did in Macerata was visit an early morning fish auction in Civitanova Marche, a small city about twenty miles east of Macerata on the Adriatic Sea. Civitanova has a long history as a fishing port, and it supplies a large quantity of seafood to the province of Macerata. I went to the market with with a group of students from the AHA Macerata Program (led by Filiberto Bracalente) who are in Macerata studying the impact of food production on the environment. –WH

If you want to get the freshest fish in Le Marche, you have to get up early. Too early. Our bus was scheduled to leave for Civitanova Marche at 3:30am, and when the alarm sounded at 3am, I was not happy.

F—k. Is this really worth it?

(pause)

Yes.

It’s not every day I have a chance to see a fish auction, so I rolled over, clumsily threw on some clothes and stumbled down the stairs that led outside. The sharp click of the front door echoed down the street, bouncing off the long rows of houses lining Via Crescimbeni. As I walked toward the bus stop, the thick, heavy soles of my shoes landed hard on the pavement, each step’s thud amplified by the still of the morning.

A couple minutes later, I passed through a tunnel in the city wall, crossed a deserted street and arrived at Giardini Diaz, a public park that doubles as an important bus stop.

No one was there, not even the bus.

Great, did I come to the wrong spot?

I was pretty sure I hadn’t.

Relax, you’re a few minutes early—who the hell shows up early at this time of day?

My anxiety was unnecessary, as everyone else showed up soon thereafter, and our bus pulled out of the park (almost) on time.

Thirty minutes later, the group walked into the market, still half asleep. The air inside was heavy with the sweet, oily smell of fish. A good deal of cigarette smoke was mixed in too, despite at least twenty (large) signs around the room that said smoking was prohibited.

The auction area was laid out like an old high school gym, with wooden bleachers rising high on either side. Instead of a hardwood floor and hoops in between, however, it had two conveyer belts running through the middle, each carrying plastic trays full of different types of fish, fresh off the boats. Every morning, weather permitting, Civitanova’s fishing fleet brings its catch to the market to be sold.

Four types of buyers come to the market, which is not open to the general public: large disributors, who sell fish to retailers throughout Italy and Europe; fish retailers, such as the smaller fish stores you see in and around Macerata; small mobile fish vendors, who sell fish from trucks at the weekly markets in small towns around Le Marche; and restaurateurs. For boat owners and for the fish buyers, this market is serious business. Until the last fish was sold, about an hour after we arrived, everyone kept a close eye on the prices reached.

 Working hard to sell the fish.

Working hard to sell the fish.

The fish are sold via a “Dutch auction,” where the price starts high and then counts down toward the final price. The designated fish buyers all have remote controls that allow them to enter the price they are willing to pay for a particular lot of fish. When the highest bid is reached, the countdown stops. A wide variety of species came through the auction, including flounder, tuna, sole, shrimp, scampi, cuttlefish, and several I did not recognize.

As the fish come down the conveyor belt, two “auctioneers” (I don’t know the actual term—but their goal is to pump up the value of the fish passing by) continually talk about the fish, lifting a few up for the buyers to see, or shaking the tray so the shrimp will start moving (the shrimp and the scampi are often still alive when they reach the market). Above the conveyors, two large LED screens listed the pertinent information for the buyers, including the species of fish up for auction, the boat where it was caught, the prices, and the winning buyers.

All the fish brought to the market are closely monitored to make sure they meet the minimum size requirements set by the European Union (the effectiveness, fairness, and sustainability of the set quotas is a topic of huge debate in fishing communities across the continent). An official stood at the beginning of the conveyor with a ruler in her hand, checking any fish that did not look big enough and removing those that did not meet the standard. She did not have to remove many, as the fishermen are very aware of the rules and (often begrudgingly) stick to them.

 Talking with the owner of a fishing boat at Civitanova's port.

Talking with the owner of a fishing boat at Civitanova's port.

The size requirements and catch limits are important issues, because the catch coming into Civitanova is decreasing, a troubling sign for the fishermen who work on the boats.  As the catch decreases, so does the number of boats and the jobs that go with them. Primo Recchioni (not pictured), owner of Recchioni Primo & Adolfo, a sizeable fish processor (and the author of a book about the decline of the traditional boats and fishing techniques), told us that while the fish industry is still culturally important for Civitanova, it is a much smaller part of the economy than it once was. So, while the wider economy is not suffering too much for the loss of fishing, a way of life is slowly being left behind.

Regardless, the remaining fishermen (in Civitanova everyone working on the boats were men) will continue to go out every day, as they have for generations, to bring in the early morning catch for people across Le Marche. (And I don’t even want to know what time their alarms go off.)

Sexy tractors and a whole lot of bull

Residents of Le Marche are justifiably proud of their cuisine, a feeling that starts with the people who produce the products that find their way into kitchens across the region. As luck would have it, I had arrived in Macerata the same weekend as the Central Italian Ag Expo (Raci, for “Rassegna Agricola Centro Italia,” in Italian*) an important ag show that attracted attendees from all over Italy in Villa Potenza, a small city just down the hill from Macerata.

Raci was a cross between a trade show and a state fair. It had a farm equipment area, with several new tractors, combines, and other machines for farmers to ogle; a large food pavilion full of meats, cheeses, wines, and preserves; a market where you could buy leather products, ceramics, gardening supplies, and other goods; horse rides for kids; and a large livestock pavilion.  

  Even Italian tractors have style.

Even Italian tractors have style.

The livestock was the highlight of the show. I saw some four-horned goats curly-feathered pigeons, sheep, and, most important of all—a demonstration of the finest cattle in the Marche region. The “razza Marchigiana,” as it is known, local breed of cow that is the pride of the region. (Trattoria da Ezio uses its meat in the meatballs).

 My photo did not turn out, so I borrowed this one from  Cronache Maceratesi , a local news site.

My photo did not turn out, so I borrowed this one from Cronache Maceratesi, a local news site.

 No perm necessary.

No perm necessary.

According to this website from the Province of Ancona (Ancona is the next province to the north), the Marchigana’s ancestors came to Italy in the 500s following the Barbarian invasions. Originally, they were used to pull carts and carry heavy loads. Starting in the early 19th century, ranchers in the region focused on improving the animals’ meat production through selective breeding, which has given the breed a high muscle-to-bone ratio.

 No question about where the beef is on this one.

No question about where the beef is on this one.

Up close, the Marchigiana is a regal animal, with creamy white hair and eye-popping musculature. The animals are valued for the milk they produce, but especially for their meat. An animal like the one in the picture below ought to produce a good steak or two (hundred).**

 Second place overall.

Second place overall.

In addition to giving the public a chance to see the Marchigiana up close, Raci gave farmers the opportunity to compete with other farms and ranches over who had the best animals.  Several different classifications, from calves to cows to bulls, were judged on qualities such as musculature, symmetry, color, etc., with the winners being announced on the last day of the show.

 A young animal that might be returning to the awards platform for years to come.

A young animal that might be returning to the awards platform for years to come.

The awards ceremony was hosted by several ag industry experts, as well as a few local politicians, hamming (steaking?)*** it up for the crowd. I don’t know if there were monetary prizes involved, but the winners did get at least atrophy, a picture with an official and a handshake (though, as someone remarked, after shaking hands with a couple of the politicians, the cattlemen ought to go back to the barn and wash their hands before touching the animals again). Some of the family-owned farms won awards in several different categories, and you could see the satisfaction on their faces as they walked their (sometimes uncooperative) animals toward the stage for to pick up their awards.

 This was the medium size. 

This was the medium size. 

The overall champion, Volt, was a mammoth animal that towered over his owner and weighed more than just about everything else at the show (even some of those sexy tractors), and was a great representative for the agricultural and culinary pride of Le Marche.

 Volt, campione!

Volt, campione!

*Acronyms in Italian only capitalize the first letter. It took me along time to figure this out, but when I did, it made it a lot easier to read the newspapers, which are full of acronyms.

**This fellow doesn’t need to worry about that for a long time. He is far more valuable as a breeding stud than he would be if butchered.

***Yes, I still like bad puns

A return a long-time coming

Last week, when my train reached Macerata about 8:30pm, I was nervous, but excited. The arrival had been a long time coming, and seeing the station brought back many memories.

Here we go, I thought, this is really happening and there’s no turning back.

The first time I rode the train to Macerata, in September 2001, the world was filled with uncertainty. A couple days earlier, my wife and I had just watched the 9/11 attacks unfold on television in a small hostel in Rome, and many questions weighed on our minds as we weaved our way through the rolling hills of the Italian countryside. Would we have to go home early? Was it safe to be an American abroad? Were we nuts for planning to stay in Italy? Looking back now, it is easy to see that everything would work out fine, but in the moment, the news was a bit unsettling.

 A panorama of the old center of Macerata

A panorama of the old center of Macerata

Living in Macerata turned out to be better than we imagined. The AHA study abroad program, run by Dr. Filiberto Bracalente, was a transformative experience for me (even though, being the spouse of a student, I had only participated on the periphery). The story is a bit long to tell here, but I will say that traveling around Macerata and Le Marche, I gained a new appreciation for art, culture, food, and for the way people live their lives. Perhaps more than anything, I realized how little I knew and how fun it was to learn.  

The three months passed by too quickly, and when we left Macerata in late December that year, I was determined to come back someday. The only question was how to make it happen.

The answer would come more than a decade later, in the fall of 2013. I had just finished the manuscript for my first book and was looking for my next project, when a thought came to me, what could I write about in Macerata?

The first thing that popped into my mind was Trattoria da Ezio, a small restaurant in the historic center of Macerata, run by Mirella Lambertucci and her family. We had eaten at the trattoria a couple times in 2001, and frequently reminisced about it in the following years. My idea for the book was to visit the trattoria for three months, observing its daily operation, researching its history, and learning how to cook “Mirella-style.” It would include some of Mirella’s recipes and secrets, learned over fifty years in the kitchen. By sharing some of the history and culture of Macerata as well, I could give something back to a place that had given me so much. A working title even popped into my head: My Summer with Mirella: Three Months in the Kitchen with the Italian Grandmother I Never Had.

But how to make it happen?

After scribbling out some notes to organize my thoughts, I sat down and carefully composed a letter, outlining my ideas for the book and what it meant to me, in detail (as Marco, Mirella’s son, would later say, it was “one long f—ing email”). A good friend of mine from Piacenza helped make sure the Italian translation was correct, important because the letter was completely unexpected and I wanted it to strike just the right tone.

Two days later, Marco wrote back and said they would be delighted to have me come. His response was more enthusiastic than I had hoped. Naturally, I was thrilled too, and over the next six months, I worked out the travel arrangements and studied Italian almost daily. When the day finally came to go to Macerata, I felt prepared, but once again, a little uncertain how things would go.

Stepping onto the platform at the station, Marco quickly dispelled any lingering doubts, greeting me with a smile and a warm welcome. We threw my bags into the back of his Nissan Micra and drove straight to the trattoria. Mirella greeted me with a big hug, and immediately offered me something to eat: first, vincisgrassi (a typical dish from Le Marche similar to lasagna), then polpette (meatballs), carciofi (artichokes), fava (fava beans), ciambellone con cioccolato (house-made yellow cake with a chocolate/hazelnut sauce, tiramisù (a creamy dessert made with mascarpone cheese), Rosso Piceno (a local red wine), vino cotto (a locally-produced dessert wine), and anice (homemade anise liquor).

The meal was the first taste of the hospitality mindset of the family I will spend most of my time with for the next three months, and the perfect welcome (back) to Macerata. It is time to create (and share) some new memories.

Welcome to Macerata

Macerata is the capital city of the province (similar to a county) of Macerata, located in the Italian region of Le Marche ("lay MARK-AY"). With slightly more than 40,000 residents, the town itself is small enough to be charming, but big enough to have a wide variety of cultural and culinary experiences available for visitors. 

 A shot of the old center of the city, shot from Via Spalato

A shot of the old center of the city, shot from Via Spalato