We sat around the red and white checkered oil cloth-clad table, in the warm kitchen of my cousins, who live in a spacious flat above their food store in the town of Ascoli Piceno, Italy. It was on our first of several visits to the province where both my maternal and paternal grandparents were born—Le Marche (The Marches) located in the eastern side of the Central area of the country, bordered by Emilia-Romagna and the republic of San Marino to the north, Tuscany to the west, Umbria to the southwest, Abruzzo and Lazio to the south, and embraced by the Sibillini Mountains on its west side and the Adriatic Sea to the east. For me, it was love at first sight for the lovely, captivating province, which has become known as “Tuscany without the crowds.” It was also the first time we were served the star specialty of Le Marche: Olive all’Ascolana—the enormous and beautiful stuffed Ascolana olives.
Olive cultivation on the Italian peninsula goes back centuries, as far back as 800 BC. It’s unclear where the Ascolana varietal originated, but it has always been a highly favored one. There are only 250 limestone-rich acres in the Ascoli Piceno area of Le Marche that can sustain the growth of Tenere Ascolane trees. Only olives grown in this small area can be labeled and sold as Ascolana olives. They have the distinguished status of being a DOP product as part of Europe’s Protected Designation of Origin program.
And the accolade is well-deserved. The Ascolana olive is very special—both tart and sweet and perfectly chewy. And did I mention enormous? My cousin Maria prepares them in the traditional way: stuffed, breaded and deep-fried—a preparation of the Ascolana olive that didn’t exist until around 1800. The olives are soaked in a brine for a week or more to bring out the semi-sweet, mild flavor they are famous for. My cousin pits them by hand with a spiral cut, and fills them with a savory mixture of ground pork, beef, sometimes chicken or lamb, finely diced vegetables, Parmigiano cheese and nutmeg. The stuffed olive is then rolled in flour, bathed in an egg wash, then coated with breadcrumbs. After a few moments in the deep fryer, out comes a perfectly golden brown, addictive delicacy with a heavenly aroma.
The proof of their popularity can be seen all over the region—sold by street vendors in brown paper cones, and featured in almost every restaurant as an antipasto selection (but I could make a whole meal of them! As the saying goes, “Una tira l’altra” – you can’t eat just one!) And their appeal has spread throughout Italy. Because they are seen as being time-consuming to make, many Italian grocery stores now carry them frozen, ready to fry.
Each August, the town of Ascoli Piceno hosts its Ascoliva Festival to honor “l’oliva più grande del mondo” – the largest olive in the world – as well as celebrates the “inestimable treasure…from counterfeits that distort its taste, quality, and history.” An official festival song can be heard as festival-goers enjoy games, demonstrations and presentations—and, of course, munching on the hot and fragrant stuffed olives.
I’ll not soon forget the first time I tasted this regional wonder in my cousin Maria’s cozy kitchen. The memories remain with me as treasures, of times spent in the place where my roots are, and beckon me back to family, fabulous food and the beautiful sights of Le March.