Spaghetti Con Vongole: Le Marche Italy in a Clam

Sometimes it’s one simple meal that will indoctrinate you into a culture and burn memories into your brain.

I had been to Le Marche before, but in the winter, where the sea was asleep, foggy and distant. I was content to stay perched up on the mountain in Civitanova Alta or around Pesaro avoiding snow storms and learning how to make broth–the Marchigiani way. But now in August, the sun was high over the waters, the umbrellas on the beaches stood up proudly in the sand and just about everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, was out on the beach or in the sea. I thought about my poor, pale, New York blue skin tone and how it was sure to reflect light from the sun like a mirror and take out a small plane. Nonetheless, I, too, wanted to be on that beach and in the water.

I was still exhaling the cabin pressured air when I arrived at a small seaside apartment in Civitanova. Everything was bright and cheery. My jet-lagged retinas projected my surroundings to my brain glowingly, like in a dream… or maybe it really was aglow. The apartment smelled fantastic: salty, not fishy. It had this “yum” smell. That’s all I can do to describe it. I walked in to waft of “yum.” I almost immediately inserted myself in the kitchen. I asked tons of questions, “Can I help?” “Can I take photos?” “What’s in that?” “Is that Rosemary?” My host laughed and smiled at me and kept cooking. Eventually he put me to work shelling some of the meat, which finally shut me up.

When I tasted the tiny little clams for the first time, I was in awe. How can something so small have such an amazing and full flavor???? And the mussels that were being served along with it, were totally different that any mussels I had tasted before!  What was this? Some kind of spell I had been put under? Was I really there or just dreaming on the plane wrapped in a pre-packaged blanket?

Come to find out, I wasn’t hallucinating or dreaming or being overly-excited about these flavorful crustaceans–although this happens with me often when it comes to food. The fish of the Adriatic Sea have a different life than in other seas. They live in one of the saltiest living seas on earth–saltier than the ocean. This paired with shallow warm waters gives the fish more sapidity. So, even the tiniest of fish can have an abundance of flavor.

I couldn’t help but ponder this tiny clam. I surely would have overlooked it on the beach or in the waters. I guess that’s true with a lot of things. We disregard the small, so life hits us over the head with a wrought-iron skillet to get our attention. We expect or assume that only the big things deserve our attention, like that big raise or opportunity we are always dreaming about. But really, if we reflect a bit, some of the most powerful moments are small ones. It seems this little Adriatic clam has given us food as allegory. Overlooked as “not much to eat” these little clams turn out to be the best thing ever.

My host, Peppe, was quiet and light-hearted in his cooking. He was born and raised by the sea. He knows that these little things matter, and he was proud to share them. The meal was succulent and delicious with the sea air blowing in the sliding glass door. Wine was poured, stories told. How generous. How amazing and how unbelievably simple. And there, with my body heavy from travel, I felt Le Marche in my soul and I was lighter because of it. Thanks Peppe… and tell the clams thank you as well.

— Elise McMullen a.k.a. The Galavant Girl
Recipe:  Spaghetti Con Vongole

2 garlic cloves, removing the spine (and thus the bitterness)
olive oil
1 kilo of clams or mix of clams and mussels (Immerse in water for 5-10 minutes for washing)
fresh herbs: a small bunch of parsley, a branch of rosemary
crushed red pepper
1/2 glass of white wine (8 oz glass)
spaghetti (100 grams per person)
sea salt

maybe:  pepper and breadcrumbs

Sauté garlic and red pepper in a pan with a little olive oil, browning just a little. Put in the clams (and mussels), the 1/2 glass of white wine and the branch of rosemary. Sauté until the clams (and mussels) open. After they open, cook for an additional five minutes, remove from heat. Take out 3/4 of the clams (and mussels) and shell them, adding the meat back to the pan. Bring water to a boil, add a good helping of salt (handful). Boil the spaghetti as directed on the box. Drain the pasta when al dente. (Eat a piece to see. If you are throwing pasta on a wall to test for doneness, this is an old wives-tale, and will undoubtably give you overcooked pasta.) Add back pasta to pan of clams (and mussels). Sauté this together. Add fresh parsley to your own taste. If you like, you can add freshly ground pepper and/or breadcrumbs.  But–NO parmigiano cheese, or any cheese on top. Serve with a side bowl to place the shells in while eating, and some good white wine–not buttery wine–fresh dry white wine.

Another little tip:  Toast some bread. If you have clam juice left over from cooking and a few clams and the pasta is all gone, you can pour this juice over your bread in a bowl with a few clams on top. A yummy way to eat everything.  

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