One of the things I relish in the most in Ascoli Piceno is the beauty emanating from every street. The cobblestone walkways and narrow roads instantly transport you to a different time. The piazzas shine so brightly and people bend over the fountains in Piazza Arringo to drink out of the mouth of the horse fountains. The one natural beauty we jumped (literally) right into finding is the river right over the bridge from our school. Our first day in Ascoli Piceno we discovered this wonderful rocky spot on the river where locals go to cool off. Our initial experience there was…. unique to say the least. While pretty much all 24 of us relaxed in the sand an older gentleman came up to us and started speaking Italian. Of course, it being our first day there, we did not necessarily know what he was saying. Piecing it together he said he writes for a newspaper and wanted to write an article about the American students who come in the summer. Our Italian tour guide, Davide, informed us that the American students are very well known here in Ascoli. The man proceeded back to his group of friends then returned holding freshly cut watermelon for all of us. The hospitality in this town is unreal!
When I’m home in Durham, NH I feel we live in a culture that’s aways rushing around. I work at the local coffee shop downtown, Breaking New Grounds, and I constantly deal with a fast-paced clientele. People can be very impatient and almost every order is a “to-go” order. Coming here for our first week of classes, I partially expected the same thing. Being so used to bringing all my homework to a coffee shop or to the library with a sandwich in hand as I walk down the street, I assumed it would be normal to do the same thing here. After our first few classes, we had some assignments to do and decided to meet at a cafe between classes to complete them. My first shock was that no one seemed to have any books, any electronics, or any care in the world at the cafe. Every person ordered their espresso, sat at a table with a friend, and leisurely drank. For us, we took up almost all the table space with notebooks and papers, barely spoke 3 words to each other, and blindly ate while we scribbled away. Day after day I noticed this phenomenon that was so strange to me. Eating lunch is an event, people leave work for 3 hours at a time and enjoy the company around them. That’s why being here has inspired me to take back lunch. The culture I’ve grown up in has always emphasized the quick and easy nature of grabbing something on the go or of multitasking and eating while working, but I’ve decided we should take back lunch and learn to enjoy each bite the way it’s meant to be. Time to take some lessons home from Italy!
I come from generations of bakers on my Italian side since 1838, so I thought maybe kneading the dough and experiencing the process could get me closer to my roots. The bakery owned by my family also has been credited for the shutting down of a McDonald’s placed in their town of Altamura. On Wednesday we had the opportunity to learn the specifics of bread making at Al Teatro Ristorante in Ascoli Piceno. During the initial demonstration, we were invited to come up and attempt to make the bread ourselves. Four of us volunteered to happily get covered in flour. First during the demonstration, he explained why they use white flour instead of whole wheat. The answer was simple, taste and perfection of recipe. Although I have heard many complaints being here about the lack of whole wheat breads, I would argue that the tradition and perfection of the bread outweighs the necessity for whole grains. Part of living in another culture is immersing yourself in their ways. After being shown how he makes the bread, we were set on our own to do it ourselves. We sifted together two types of flour, added in the other ingredients, and let it rise. He also explained to us that the difference between pizza dough and bread dough is the amount of rises it goes through. Pizza is only risen once, bread is risen once, beaten down, and risen again.
After we had the pleasure of making the bread dough, we were allowed to watch a professional spinning pizza dough and flattening it to the a perfect circle. The ease at which he did it was completely unreal. Then, of course, comes the product of our labor. We left for a little while and came back to pizza fresh out of the oven! Getting to experience the tradition that has been in my family for so long made me realize the simplicity and beauty of baking a good loaf of bread.
Food trucks have become quite the trend in the United States, and when exploring the outdoor market on Wednesday, I was directed to the most spectacular one. Never did I think 2,50 euro, some greasy meat, and a crusty white roll would bring me so much joy. The gastronomic experience I’m referring to is called a “porchetta panino”, literally a pork sandwich. I was told by professors in my program that this was something I must try before leaving Ascoli Piceno. The food truck is called Gastronomia di Matteo. I watched as two older Italian men shaved piles of meat onto a small crusty white roll, and though my Italian is quite broken, when the gentleman making my sandwich held up a piece of crispy pork skin and gestured towards me, the word “si” immediately expelled from my mouth.
Taking the first bite was an experience that could not ever be replicated. A friend of mine on the trip who is also in EcoGastronomy embarked on this experience with me. No sauces or enhancers were added to this porchetta panino. As stated earlier, simply meat and bread. The first bite allowed for a large chunk of tender white meat, clearly cooked for hours on end. The meat was soft and not overpoweringly salty. By bite number two, I got to my favorite part, the skin. The skin was crisp and salty with a layer of fat sitting perfectly underneath it. The beauty of it all, this porchetta panino is common here in Ascoli Piceno, and I’ve only hit food truck number one!
… If the entire store was comprised of fresh fruits and vegetables. I will have to say I’ve been a little over zealous with the vegetable consumption since arriving in Italy. Contrary to popular belief, the markets here aren’t only comprised of pizza and pasta, but an array of beautiful fruits and vegetables, as well as specialty cheeses and cured meats (my absolute favorite). Driving from the Dolomites to Ascoli Piceno was quite the experience agriculturally as well. Nestled between each large city seems to be some of the most beautiful agriculture I have ever laid eyes on. Field after field engulfed in vineyards, sunflowers, and a variety of fruits and vegetables seemed plentiful. During the six hour journey to Ascoli Piceno, I don’t believe I went over 10 minutes without seeing some sort of intentional agriculture out of the window. I was awestruck in the most positive way. The product of labor can be seen at the spectacular Rialto Market in Venice as well as the daily markets held in Ascoli Piceno. The beauty of waking up before class, strolling down to the market, and picking out my selection of fresh fruits and veggies for the day is something I’ve never been able to experience at home. Another wonderful surprise came when I reached into my wallet and pulled out less than 5 euros for the entirety of my purchase, which has lasted me over 4 days in consumption. At a market back home, this would be unheard of. Though the stereotype of pizza and pasta does ring true to some extent, I have never been more pleasantly surprised than my market experiences in Ascoli Piceno.