Part I of a two-part series.
The local specialty food of Ascoli Piceno is an addictive one: gigantic olives that are stuffed with meat and deep-fried. It may sound odd, but they are very good. In fact, Bryan loves them, and he normally does not eat olives! Around the Piceno, no party or antipasto plate is complete without them.
The Ascolani say that this tradition actually dates back to Roman times, but, like most things in this part of the country, it came into its own during the Medieval period. It is a rather ingenious dish, utilizing the most common (some may say 'humble') products at hand and turning them into a delicacy.
It was originally a way to use up scraps of meat and cheese. The local olive variety, found only in this part of the country, is called the tenera ascolana. It is a behemoth as far as olives are concerned, very large ovals that are very 'meaty'. The olive is a D.O.P. item, as is the final dish of olive all'ascolana (a special certification for the authenticity of specialty regional products).
Local tradition dictates the olives be pitted by hand a spirale, in a spiral around the pit. The olive is then "reconstructed" around the little balls of meat before being breaded and fried. Special curved olive-pitting knives are sold in the local cutlery shops, some embossed with the Ascoli Piceno emblem, making them nice souvenirs. I once watched my former landlord pit about 300 olives this way and quickly decided that buying pre-pitted olives in tubs would be just fine for an americana like me!
The tenera ascolana olives are also unique in that they are cured in a light brine of water and sea salt instead of vinegar. This makes a huge difference in the taste; they are very mild, so there is no 'pucker factor' with these olives.
The meats selected always include pork and chicken; from that base other "scelte" are added according to taste. Indeed, each person I know in Ascoli Piceno makes their stuffed olives slightly differently. Some add a bit of beef or veal to the mix; others insist it must have some prosciutto. I've run across a few that include mortadella, and one man who used pancetta. As for the cheese, most use grana padano, but local, aged pecorino is popular, too. Odori (spices) vary, as well; some cooks add celery and carrot to the pot of cooking meat (pulling it out before proceeding); some like nutmeg, others say it overpowers the flavor. Little arguments break out over the "correct" way to make them, with everyone always referring back to the authoritative, "Well, that is the way my grandmother made them!" Since this was cucina povera, whatever was at hand was what they used, which is why everyone's nonna makes it her own way!
Next time I'll post the recipe, which was a little labor of love to translate and adapt, let me tell you! My friends' recipes required measurement conversions (something I'm still not adept at, even after three years), and frankly the quantities were huge! Dorina, my former landlord, told me, "If you're going to make them, you may as well make 300 of them, because why go to all that work for just a few? She had a point. My recipe will make about 200. Once they are prepared and breaded, they can be frozen until you're ready to fry them.
PART II - Recipe and Preparation of Authentic Olive all'Ascolana