ITINERARIES, GASTRONOMY AND TRADITION: ASCOLI PICENO
The second stop of the foodiestrip's journey through the provinces and the Italian gastronomy. This time we are going to talk about the history of Ascoli Piceno and its typical dishes and beauty
They say: Ascoli Piceno
«Walking through the streets of Ascoli Piceno, through its lanes split between shade and sun, is truly like browsing a book of Italian art history, encountering the most representative and expressive illustrations» Jean-Paul Sartre
«Ascoli Piceno is one of the most beautiful small towns in Italy. I can’t see any other towns looking like. Andrea Gidè used to prefer it … It is as nice as some cities in southern France, not really for this or that monument, but for its whole, the anthology quality, the charm that comes from nowhere and everything. If you take a walk from Piazza del Popolo (People’s Square), which together with San Marco Square in Venice is considered a pleasant and wonderful living-room, it’s surrounded by arcades, enclosed by the beautiful apse of San Francesco; the narrow streets called rue, which spread out in small squares encircled by many ancient monuments… Ascoli is a town of towers… you can see many styles such as the Romanesque, the Gothic, the Renaissance, the Baroque…with churches with stone walls, without windows; a travertine of a warm gray, uniform, without plaster … all adorned, worked, stained … and on every door and window, you can see fruit, leaves, female caryatids, flowers, animals, stars, or even simply proverbs and carved sentences» Guido Piovene
Ascoli Piceno, the “City of One Hundred Towers”
Approaching Ascoli coming from via Salaria or from the sea, the towers can be immediately noticed.
Modern as the old Carbon chimney, a disused company and today the central polemic discussed by the citizens. Or like the towers of the dormitory area of Monticelli (built in 1972), made with such little care that one of them has been already cleared and restructured.
Then, more distant and small, silhouette and stickers under the Monte Vettore (mountain of the Apennines), finally the medieval ones appear. Because Ascoli was the “City of one hundred towers,” of which today only a handful of them remain, the neighbor of that bourgeoisie dedicated to the commerce and processing of wool that made the Municipality and the noble families rich.
Because Ascoli is above all a medieval city. A city whose historic center is the largest in the Marche region. It is a city of stone, white and surrounded by thick walls, born on the ruins of the old Asclon.
The Roman Ascoli. The rebel Ascoli
1000 years before the Urbe condita (the foundation of Rome), Ascoli was there. Silio Italico traces its birth to the legendary king Aesis, and the root of the name refers to the horse chestnut trees present in the area in large numbers.
With the arrival of the Romans, the Picenes (from Picus, woodpecker, the symbol of the city still today) become allied. Then, however, they rise up during the social war. Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, the father of Pompey the Great, besieges the town that has sided with the rebellious Italian peoples to demand their rights of citizenship (which eventually the Romans granted to all the inhabitants of the peninsula).
There are still testimonies of the battle: the missile acorns found in the Castellano bed. These are projectiles used by the slingers of the two forces. As for the cannon balls, many were engraved. There are still imprecations, teasing and signs of belonging. The italics had written, “Ital,” “Feri Pomp” (hit Pompeo), “Op terga” (hitting a fleeing opponent would have meant victory).
The identity of a people
The story of acorns missiles is the story of Ascoli and its people. Small history of a small provincial town, which has also crossed the millennia as acorns did, on which the name Italy appears for the first time. A small story, small objects. But witnesses of a glorious past, run by proud people, yet able to unite to support their traditions far more than the nearby San Benedetto, whose quarrelsome people are stubbornly individualistic.
Not Ascoli. Ascoli and its people have cemented to recreate the Quintana, a medieval tournament that takes place annually since 1955. Ascoli is gathered around the city football team, brought in Serie A (professional league competition) by a simple and genuine man like Costantino Rozzi, who we would have easily seen in the guise of the acorns missiles engraver.
Rozzi, blacksmith Piceno, who laughs and satisfactorily shows anyone his last teasing of lead. Rozzi masked, an actor of those staging that makes the Carnival of Ascoli one of the most original in Italy. Rozzi true mask, the soul of a people like Pulcinella, is for Naples and Meneghino for Milan.
In conclusion: Ascoli Piceno, medieval city
Ascoli Piceno is a medieval city and therefore is traditionalist and right-wing. Closed as its Piazza del Popolo, the city parquet that everyone, but everyone, has defined at least once “living room.” And it’s true. The square with its arcades, the backdrop of the Church of S. Francesco, the Palazzo dei Capitani (Capitains’ Palace), is a velvet trench, warm and welcoming just like Piazza San Marco in Venice.
Ascoli is a medieval city, cruel and sweet like its people. An end-of-the-world city, directly from the year one thousand. Preferred access gate of the Sibilla Picena that passed through it to reach its cave. Magical and mystical, witch-like and demonic as its mountains: Guerrin Meschino, 1378, Templars, roses and crosses everywhere engraved in the villages of the Sibylline belt. Terrors accessible by coming out of the walls of Ascoli and climbing up towards the Vettore and Lake Pilato (where God threw the man who washed his hands in front of the life). Here everything has a name that recalls the Hell: Gola dell’Infernaccio, Pizzo del Diavolo, Valle dell’Inferno.
Ascoli is foggy even when it’s sunny. It is medieval despite the industrial wealth that only the 2008 crisis has prostrated. Ascoli is a passageway and a static city at the same time, a stagnating oasis that the inhabitants suffer and hate. But they do not want to change. Because they know that Ascoli, after all, is beautiful just the way it is.
The Olive ascolane (Tender Ascolan olive)
The Olive ascolane are green olives fried in breadcrumbs and stuffed with three different kinds of minced meat (beef, pork, and chicken). On 25 January 1849, Giuseppe Garibaldi tasted the famous olives in Ascoli. He is fascinated and asks his friend Candido Augusto Vecchi to send him some seedlings to grow in Caprera. The experiment fails, but the Olive ascolane have shown their potential to the world.
The fried oliva ascolana is made with the “Tender Ascolana,” a particular type of olive that the Romans knew and called “colymbades.” Petronius narrates how they were always present in the banquets of Trimalcione, and Pope Sixtus V quotes them in a letter addressed to the Elders of Ascoli. Unfortunately, the Ascolana dop collected in the Piceno is very little used in the preparation of fried olives. Most of them (95%) are bought in Greece.
Their size was perfect to be used in the creation of fried olives, a dish that is very popular not only in Italy. The research of Benedetto Marini on the Olive ascolane has managed to trace its origins back to the 1800s. At that time the chefs of the nobility used the variety of meat (and leftovers) to recycle it in pre-finger food delicacies.
Every woman in Ascoli has her own recipe for the olives and their own percentages of meat. And yet, there is a rule: the true “liva” (the dialect word of olive) of Ascoli must be small and round. The ground meat has nutmeg, eggs, cheese, pork, beef and, in some cases, chicken or turkey. Peanut seeds oil is used for frying, although it is preferable to use extra-virgin olive oil.
Coniglio ‘Ngip e ‘Ngiap (‘Ngip and ‘Ngiap rabbit)
Generally, is the rabbit to be cooked following this recipe, but you can cook any type of meat. ‘Ngip and’ Ngiap does not mean anything even in dialect. Simply indicates something cooked quickly, with a few frills and few spices (only those typical of the Mediterranean tradition). Just place the rabbit or chicken in a pan and brown it with oil, garlic, chili and a few bay leaves (or sage and rosemary). Everything can be blended with white wine.
The Anisetta Meletti
For the Anisetta is different. This liqueur tells a story, just like the Art Nouveau-style cafè that used to sell it, the Caffè Meletti. It is a liqueur invented by Silvio Meletti and made with the green anise of Castignano, a variety of anise that has risked disappearing and is now grown in a few hectares within the municipality of Ascoli Piceno. The distillate was born in 1870 and has not changed since then. An experience that you cannot miss in Ascoli? Taste the anisette with the fly, that is, adding one or more coffee beans.
Let’s be clear: the mistrà, considering the alcohol strength, hits hard. It is a liqueur that is typically prepared at home and in the countryside, it is still customary to do it and offer it to friends, relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances. It is a distillate that can even reach 70% but generally stands at 40-45%. The origins are Venetian. The Venetians, in fact, conquered the Greek city Mistrà, very close to ancient Sparta. From 1689, the year of the conquest, the Venetians made the ouzo (the Greek term for the mistrà) their liqueur par excellence. Austrian domination, however, eclipsed the use of the mistrà, which was rediscovered in the Marches and also industrialized by the Varnelli family more than 100 years ago. A piece of advice? Beware of the artisan mistrà with honey inside, which tends to soften the alcohol. As a result, you don’t really taste the alcohol, and you tend to drink too much. With apocalyptic consequences…
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)