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“Undiscovered Italy: Le Marche” at the International Culinary Center

Getting ready to make Olive Ascolane (meat-stuffed fried olives)

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation about the food and culture of Le Marche given by Francine Segan at the International Culinary Center.  Hugging the Adriatic coast of Italy, it’s one of the provinces that is often overlooked by tourists, as it is west of Tuscany and Umbria and north of Lazio, where Rome is located.  I have to confess that I haven’t been there myself, which I realize is a huge oversight.  From Francine’s description, it sounds as though it is an undiscovered gem.

Chef Emilio Pasqualini of Cantina del Picchio with culinary students demonstrating making Olive Ascolane

Le Marche, she told the audience, has quaint medieval towns, beautiful museums, and historic Renaissance structures.  To one side of the province are the mountains and to the other is the sea.  In introducing the afternoon’s cooking demonstration, Francine raved, “The food.  The food.  It’s amazing.”

“Stringi, stringi!” Chef Pasqualini tells a culinary student to squeeze the meatballs to go into the olives

After introducing us to Chef Emilio Pasqualini of Cantina del Picchio, located in Offida in Ascoli Piceno, the chef began making Olive Ascolane, an olive dish from the region of Ascoli Piceno filled with a combination of beef, veal, and chicken cooked in carrots, celery, and onions.  Soft pecorino cheese and aged pecorino cheese as well as nutmeg are added to the ground meat.  Then, as the chef demonstrated in the picture above, taking about a tablespoon of meat, he squeezed it in his fist to get out all the moisture.  His instructions were to squeeze it (“Stringi!”) ten times, not more, not less.

Olive Ascolane

The olives are peeled in a spiral to remove the pit (demonstrated in the second photo).  The olive is then shaped around the ball of meat and squeezed (“Stringi!”) four more times (“quattro volte di piu”) before being tossed with flour, dunked in beaten egg, coated with breadcrumbs, and then quickly fried in hot oil.  One of the tricks to cooking them is to put them in a basket or wire sieve when frying them, chef explained, to keep them from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Sparkling Pecorino wine from Ciu Ciu Winery

Once my teeth broke through that hot, thin, crisp shell, tore into the olive’s tangy layer, and then reached the meaty, slightly cheesy center to be followed by a finishing chunk of briny olive, I knew I was experiencing a perfect marriage of flavors.  Served with Sparkling Pecorino wine from Ciu Ciu Winery, the acidity of the wine, along with its fizziness, complemented the dense, rich combination of meat, breading, and olives to leave a clean finish in my mouth.  As Francine said at the beginning of the demonstration, “This pairing had me at hello.”  Now, I understood completely what what she had meant.

Chef Pasqualini and Francine Segan talk about Maccheroncini di Campofílone

One of the pastas of the Le Marche is the super-thin Maccheroncini di Campofílone.  It is an egg pasta that soaks up lots of liquid, as Francine explained.  Bones and meat are cooked slowly for several hours in the sauce, which is seasoned with nutmeg and cloves, vestiges of medieval recipes.  The pasta is dressed with the sauce first and then the meat is added on top of that.

Maccheroncini di Campofílone al Ragù Piceno

Each bite of this dish is composed of multiple, distinctict layers of flavor.  The toothsome pasta picks up the sweet, tangy tomato sauce first,  then the heartiness of the meat and the chicken livers followed by the nuttiness and creamy notes of the pecorino cheese sprinkled on top of everything.  All the components have their unique identity; however, they come together harmoniously in every delicious forkful.

After the pasta, we were treated to a glass of Montepulciano made by Domodimonti, which produces natural, organic wines.  The smooth, round summer berry tones would have partnered well with the multiple flavors in the pasta dish.  Francine explained to us that the wines of Ascoli Piceno naturally have a very low level of sulfites, something to which she is extremely sensitive.  I completely fell in love with this wine, with its deep, dark garnet color and intense fruit taste.

Chef Pasqualini making dough for Pizza al Formaggio

For the final dish of the afternoon, Chef Pasqualini made a Pizza al Formaggio, a typical cheese bread of the region.  It uses what he called a lievito madre or what we would refer to as a dough “starter” and is left to rise, allowing the starter plus added sugar and the other ingredients to do their work.

Pizza al Formaggio with Olives from Le Marche

The result is a dense bread with the cheese melted into its interior.  It is generally eaten as a seated first course, we were told.  Here we had it along with several of the same kind of olives that were used in the Olive Ascolane.  Nibbling on the bread, I could almost taste the cured, fat-studded meats that would have been appropriate to go along with it.  Sipping the glass of Montepulciano that I’d been nursing, I could easily see why Francine was so effusive about Offida, Le Marche, and the cuisine of this region.  I will need to figure out how to get there on my next trip to Europe to sample some more of its delights.

Buon appetito!

For more information about Le Marche, included recommendations on where to stay and to dine, please see Francine Segan’s article in Italia Living.

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