Among the 450 or so types of cheeses found in Italy, a dozen or so, including mozzarella, ricotta, parmigiano, gorgonzola and pecorino have gained international renown and distribution. The hundreds of other equally delicious varieties are consumed largely within the province where they are made.
That’s why a visit to Le Marche is essential for any cheese connoisseur. In this mountainous area where armies of sheep, goats and cows spill over the countryside, you’ll find both Marchigiano versions of well-known products like pecorino and ricotta, as well as a slew of other cheeses that are specific to the region, among them casecc, slattato, luna gialla, cacio in forma di limone and Michelangelo’s favorite, Casciotta di Urbino, offering exceptionally rich tastes and terroir-defined flavors. If a village doesn’t produce a particular cheese it will at least have a unique take on one from a nearby town.
Le Marche’s varied landscape allows such range. “Here goats and sheep can be bred, as well as dairy cattle,” says Christana Beltrami, whose father Vittorio has been called called the “Einstein of cheeses” (by celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich). She points out that “small breeders are also producers,” something that guarantees a supply of artisan-quality offerings. Vittorio Beltrami, an engaging personality who like Einstein sports a cascade of cotton-white hair, is renowned for his innovations with pecorino, a sheep-milk cheese produced in the Sibellini mountains for centuries. Beltrami’s passion and his ability to blend cheese-making traditions long rooted in the area with freshly crafted approaches (“retro-innovation,” is how how he describes them) has earned him a cult following among foodies and culinary world insiders.
Based in Cartoceto, Beltrami creates 12 kinds of pecorino, including pecorino di fossa which he matures underground (the grand reveal comes in November, this year on Sunday the 26th); specialty versions of the cheese like vinaiolo, which is seasoned with vinaccia (distilled grape solids); and other varieties aged with truffles, barley herbs, or with with olive ash. In addition to pecorino, Beltrami produces a line of goat cheeses, including a double-curd caprata, that is available at Gastronomia Beltrami (Via Umberto 21/23 in Cartoceto) and foodscovery.com, the virtual marketplace for small food producers chosen by Slow Food for online sales). The company also offers lessons in cheese connoisseurship, spearheaded by Maestro Beltrami himself .
Giving hope that millennials will carry on historic cheesemaking traditions in Le Marche is 33- year-old Claudia Ridolfi, who is developing specialty pecorini and other classic regional formaggi at Affinita Gustative, her small laboratory in Mondavio. “A reason the pecorini made here are of high quality is that the sheep graze in areas that are uncontaminated,” she says. Ridolfi’s products include a range of roasted pecorini finished with methods long used in the countryside by farmers and peasants (and stored in grottoes dating from the Renaissance), including a casecc, matured after being wrapped in walnut leaves and stored in large terracotta urns; others are aged with wheat bran, or with red wine, fennel and laurel leaves. At the lab Ridolfi offers visitors the chance to be a cheese artisan for a day, where you can produce your own favorite pecorino. (Le Affinita Gustative. Via Rossini, 4, Mondavio)
After pecorino, Le Marche’s best known formaggio is Casciotta di Urbino. Produced in the Pesaro Urbino area, it is the region’s only cheese with a DOP, which stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (a seal of approval like the wine world’s DOC), guaranteeing local production by artisans who follow traditional processes. Michelangelo was such a devotee of casciotta he bought cattle farms to ensure he had a sufficient supply while painting the Sistine Chapel. The cheese, made of 80 percent sheep’s milk and 20 percent cow’s milk, was also prized by the dukes of Urbino, who saw it as a valuable product for barter. You can buy the cheese at Caseificio Val d’ Apsa, a family-run producer outside Urbino (Via Ca’ Bergamo, loc. Viapiana)
While the Agricola Fontegranne makes casciotta (and recommends serving it with fish soup or with honey and apricots), the company also offers casecc and bucchero infossato, a somewhat rare, spicy raw milk cheese, along with other Le Marche products like salami, cicci, and olive oil, which are sold at their store in Belmonte Picino (Contrada Castellarso Ete,11).
The region’s other lesser-known cheeses include cacio in forma di limone, a sheep’s milk product from the Metauro valley believed to have been produced in the region since the sixteenth century. Named for its appearance—the cacio is placed in lemon-shaped molds and readied for maturation with a mix of salt and lemon zest—it is made in spring and summer and often served as a dessert cheese. There’s also the creamy slattato, created from cow’s milk and prepared in the fall and winter around Montefeltro; luna gialla, also a cow’s milk product, which pairs well with honey and pears and bucchero, a cheese made from a mix of goat’s curd and cow’s milk.
You can find the lemon cacio at Caseificio Val d’ Apsa ( Via Ca’ Bergamo, loc. Viapiana) and the bucchero and luna gialla at Bottega Bartolini Via Vittorio Alfieri, 11, Monte Urano;.Local cheeses can also be found at gastronomic shops throughout the region. The major cheese purveyor, Sabelli SPA, based in Ascoli Piceno, offers products from Le Marche along with fresh mozzarella and ricotta.