Tuesday, 26 May 2009

An uncommon passion

Silvano has a passion for food. This may seem like a strange thing to say in a nation of gastronomes, but his is an uncommon passion - medieval food. He likes to make it, serve it to people, and tell them about it. In a region with the best-preserved medieval architecture and heritage in Italy, he's the perfect - and rather rare - culinary complement to its historians and cultural doyens (who themselves are plentiful and yet somewhat "latent".)

He's taken his penchant a step further too by housing his restaurant in a renovated castle, tucked away in a small borgo (hamlet) of steep cobbled alleys that contort themselves around and through the structure, creating new discoveries around each twisted corner. If you didn't know where the restaurant was, it would be quite a challenge to find it. But then that's the thing about Il Picciolo di Rame - you don't stumble upon it, it's a deliberate act, you go there because that's where you're going.

Twelve courses based on ancient recipes are introduced with the meticulous detail of the historian and the deep respect of a man of the country, starting off with the most simple of concepts - bruschetta drizzled with olive oil. That's it, no other topping. But this is not just your ordinary olive oil (which I'm sure marchigiani would assert does not exist here) - it's a carefully selected type of olive grown in a very specific area. Three, four, eight-hundred year old recipes follow - a medieval matrimonial dish, wild fennel, a single giant hand-made raviolo, a small type of lentil from the high-altitude Piano Grande with 15 different herbs, goat with wild herbs ...

Silvano said we were finished eating ... and then promptly brought out dessert. You walk out sated, intrigued, thankful, but not overfull, thanks to the modest portions.

And as with any Italian encounter, you just never know what might happen. First, I discovered that his grandfather was born in a house I can see from my own. Then he brought out a wine from a little-known vinicola some distance away (but still in Le Marche), whose owner - a count - I'd interviewed a few months ago, and which is probably the only regional winery to make kosher wine (and export it to New York). (Silvano didn't know this.) The goat he served spawned discussions of goat's milk, a hard-to-find item much sought-after by my wife, and so I walked out with a bottle of fresh goat's milk, with a promise of more if we would just stop by his house when we needed it ...

As with most special eating experiences, it's not just about the food - it's about the whole process: the love, the care, the interest ... and the prospect of making a new friend. It's a symbol of Italy. In Le Marche, you're never far from such experiences - you just need to know where to go ...

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