The Frasassi Caves are a remarkable cave system in the province of Ancona, Marche. They are one of the largest known cave systems in Europe and they have an impressive array of stalactites and stalagmites spread along 19 miles of accessible caverns. Inside the caves, natural sculptures have formed for over 190 million years. The water flowing on the limestone dissolved small quantities of limestone that fell to the ground. Over time, these deposits form stalagmites (columns that grow upward from the lower part) and stalactites (columns that grow down from the ceiling). They are among the most famous show caves in Italy. Show caves are caves that are managed by a government or commercial organization and made accessible to the general public, usually for an entrance fee. Unlike wild caves, they typically possess such features, as constructed trails, guided tours, lighting and regular touring hours.
In 1948, Mario Marchetti, Paolo Beer and Carlo Pegorari, members of a speleological group (scientists who study caves) discovered the entry of the Cave of the River. In 1966, a member of the Fabriano Speleological Group, Maurizio Borioni, discovered an extension that was one kilometer long inside the River Cave. Five years later, in July 1971, a new discovery took place. This time a group of young men found a narrow opening in the River Cave where a strong air stream came out. The men were Armando Antonucci, Mauro Coltorti, Mauro Brecciaroli, Mario Cotticelli, Massimo Mancinelli, Giampiero Rocchetti and Roberto Toccaceli. They worked for about one month to widen the narrow path and, the following August, they passed through what would be later called “Strettoia del Tarlo” (Worm’s narrow path). The young men discovered a series of new caves, burrows, wells and striking tunnels, that also contained animal prints that had been preserved for thousands of years.
The next discovery, the Cave of the Wind, took place on September 25, 1971, when Rolando Silvestri discovered a small entrance in the north slope of the mountain, Valley Montagna. Helped by some friends, he was able to open a passage from a small opening. His initial disappointment caused by the small discovery was followed by the hope for something bigger. He found success and in the small opening there were many openings and, after further excavation, they discovered a cave about 100 meters deep. Their problem, then, was how to get into the cave and reach the bottom. Eventually, with the right equipment, they lowered themselves into the cave, later called “Abyss Ancona”. Their lights illuminated the splendour and beauty of this discovery. The explorations of the speleological group increased and their goal was to find a connection between the two caves, which they believed existed. Two months later, on December 8th, speleologists found a path between the Cave of the River and the Cave of the Wind and named it, Fabriano Conduit.
The two huge caves were a labyrinth of underground rooms that followed one another for more than thirteen kilometers. At the time, only speleologists with the right equipment could explore this wonderful underground world. Late in 1972, the local government built an artificial tunnel 200 meters long between the two caves. The opening took place on September 1st, 1974 and since then many tourists have been able to visit these caves and appreciate the beauty of nature.
There are several possible routes inside the caves. The first one is the tourist route where you will be accompanied by professional guides. It is an organized underground route, easily accessible by everyone. It covers 1.5 kms and it lasts over 70 minutes. The second route, called the adventure route, is more difficult than the tourist route. The Frasassi Authority provides for two adventure routes of different difficulty levels: the blue route (lasting about two hours) and the red one route (about 3 hours long). Equipment is provided by the Authority and you navigate the paths on your own.
The Cave of the Wind, also the largest cave in Europe, became well-known to the Italian public after being used in an unusual TV reality program, which involved seeing how well people got on when shut in a cave together for a long time. The region around the Frasassi Caves is a mix of quiet hill villages and very attractive scenery, including the Gola della Rossa Nature Park, which is also well worth exploring.
The Cuisine of Anacona, Marche Region
The influence of the neighboring regions, can be seen in the popularity of fresh egg pasta and oven-baked pasta dishes in Marche. Vincisgrassi is a regional favorite, a baked-lasagna stuffed with chicken livers.
You will also find a variety of soups, such as Minestra di lumachelle made with eggs, cheese and bread crumb pasta, similar to Passatelli. Tripe soup, or minestra di trippa, is also a regional specialty and is served with a battuto topping (lard pounded together with herbs). Along the coast, soup consumption continues but it takes the form of brodetto or fish soup. Brodetti are prepared with all types of fish and various other ingredients like vinegar, flour, garlic and saffron.
There are also a number of special, regional preparations such as porchetta, a combination of spices and cured pork and called potacchio, if cooked with white wine, tomato, lemon juice and spices, alla marinara, if stewed in tomato sauce or, if baked, gratinati al forno.
People from Marche are also meat-lovers and will eat everything from pigeon to lamb. Piolotto is a way to prepare meat by wrapping it in paper with a piece of lard, which melts into the meat during cooking. Another local favorite is a spit-roasted whole, boneless pig that has been stuffed with herbs. Milk-fed veal, on the other hand, is often cooked in Chianti wine.
Among the regional salumi is Prosciutto di Carpegna DOP seasoned with juniper, is well-known. There are also soppresse, salsicce, sausages and a particular salume called Ciauscolo, which has the consistency of a pate seasoned with garlic, thyme and fennel.
Some of the best cheeses made in Marche are Casciotta d’Urbino DOP, Raviggiolo del Montefeltro, Slattato and herb-flavored sheep’s milk cheeses. For a special treat, look for Olive Ascolane (plump olives are stuffed with meat, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and then fried).
Desserts in Marche are generally made using popular ingredients. Cicerchiata is a dessert made from yeast dough, shaped into balls, fried and covered with honey. Becciate are made with raisins and pine nuts. Adventurous eaters could try Migliaccio, a dessert made with pig’s blood, sugar and citrus peel. If Migliaccio is not your cup of tea, try Frusteri, a simple pastry made with sapa di mosto or cooked grape must.
One of the most well-known wines produced in Marche is Verdicchio, a white wine that pairs well with fish. The region is also famous for its Anisetta, aromatic liquor that smells and tastes like anise.
Cozze al limone (Mussels with lemon)
The area is an ideal growing environment for mussels. As a result, mussels here are big and pulpy with a mellow sea flavor.
- 3 lbs mussels
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 lemons, cut into thin slices
- Several sprigs of parsley;
- 1 dried red chili pepper
- Salt and pepper
Clean and scrape the mussels under running water. Place them into a big, deep bowl filled with cold water and throw away any mussels that float.
10 minutes before serving, pour the olive oil into a large pan with a high rim. Add the garlic and the sprigs of parsley roughly chopped, the chili pepper broken into pieces and a little salt and pepper.
Drain the mussels and put them in the pan alternating with the slices of lemon.
Cook over a high heat until all the mussels open. Shake the pan from time to time.
Serve the mussels with their cooking liquid and some slices of toasted crusty Italian bread.
Vincisgrassi – Special Lasagna
A dish from the Marches with an odd name. Vincisgrassi is the Italianization of the name of the Austrian general, Prince Windischgratz, who was commander of the Austrian Forces stationed in the Marches. The dish was allegedly created for the prince by a local chef.
For the lasagna sauce
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 2 oz prosciutto, chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- 9 oz fresh chicken livers, cleaned and cut into small pieces
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste dissolved in 1/2 cup warm beef or chicken stock
- 9 oz calf’s brain and sweetbreads, cleaned
- 1 thick slice of lemon
- 2/3 oz dried porcini
- 4 oz cultivated mushrooms
- 1 garlic clove, squashed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Lasagna
- 1 lb lasagna noodles
- Béchamel Sauce made with 1/4 cup butter, 1/3 cup flour, 4 cups whole milk, salt and freshly ground white pepper
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Melt the 1 tablespoon of butter in a saucepan over medium heat and saute the chicken livers and the prosciutto for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the onion and carrot and brown the vegetables.Pour the white wine over the mixture and cook until it has evaporated. Add the tomato paste dissolved in the stock, mix well and bring the sauce to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer very gently for 1 hour.
Simmer the brain and sweetbreads in water with the lemon for 5 minutes. Drain and refresh. Meanwhile, soak the dried porcini in 1/4 cup warm water for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid. Clean and slice the fresh mushrooms. Sauté them with the garlic in the olive oil for 5 minutes. Remove the garlic and discard.
Strain the porcini liquid through a sieve lined with cheesecloth or paper towels. Slice the porcini and put them, together with the fresh mushrooms and the porcini liquid, into the chicken liver sauce after the sauce has been cooking for 1 hour. Cut the brain and sweetbreads into small pieces and add to the chicken liver sauce with the milk, nutmeg and cinnamon. cook for another 30 minutes.
Make the béchamel sauce and cover it with plastic wrap to prevent a skin forming.
Butter a lasagna pan 11 x 8 inches. Cook 3 or 4 lasagna noodles at a time in plenty of salted boiling water Place on kitchen towels until ready to make the lasagna
Spread 3 tablespoons béchamel over the bottom of the pan and then cover with a layer of noodles. Cover with 4 tablespoons of the chicken liver and mushroom sauce and the same amount of béchamel. Cover with another layer of noodles and repeat until all the ingredients are used up, finishing with a layer of lasagna noodles and béchamel.
Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, so that all the flavors will combine. Remove from the refrigerator and allow the lasagna to return to room temperature.Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Bake for about 30 minutes or until hot in the center.
Melt the butter and pour over the vincisgrassi as soon as it is removed from the oven. Sprinkle with the Parmesan and let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Fried Sweet Ravioli with Ricotta
For the Dough:
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 stick (8 oz) butter (softened)
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 egg yolk, beaten (reserve the white for sealing)
- Oil for frying
For the Filling:
- 2 cups ricotta
- 2 ounces mini dark chocolate chips
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (plus more to garnish)
- 3/4 cup powdered sugar (plus more to garnish)
In a sieve lined with cheesecloth, strain the liquids from ricotta for a few hours in the refrigerator.
In a measuring cup, mix the milk, vanilla and egg yolk and set aside
Prepare the dough by mixing flour, sugar and salt in a large bowl, add the soft butter in pieces. Start working in the butter with your hands, then slowly add the milk mixture. Knead dough for 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside for 1 to 2 hours to rest in a cool place (though not in the refrigerator.)
Prepare the filling by mixing all ingredients with a spoon in medium bowl.Refrigerate until ready to use.
Heat the oil about 4 to 5 inches deep in a heavy bottomed pot or Dutch Oven to 350-370 degrees F.
Cut the dough into 4 equal sized pieces. Flour the work surface and roll out each section 1/8 th inch thick and large enough to cut out four ravioli with a 5 inch round pastry/biscuit cutter.
Place 1 tablespoon filling, on each ravioli circle and use the egg white to brush the edges of the circle. Fold ravioli in half; press with a fork to seal.
Place 2 to 3 ravioli in hot oil at a time and fry until golden brown. Place on paper towels to cool and sprinkle powder sugar on both sides once cooled slightly. Serve slightly warm garnished with additional powdered sugar and cinnamon.