Cheeses and dairy products
Cheese making in the Marches has rural, or even family origins. In a region with traditions of poverty, the alimentary requirements of the house were dependent upon the availability of the certain foods. Cheese was one of these, obtained almost always only from the milking of sheep, or in some cases of goats. Cows’ milk was much more rare because it was much easier to control the flocks of smaller animals out to pasture and their periodic transferral from one seasonal pasture to another, than whole herds of larger animals which could not be controlled with the help of just dogs. Over time, cheese production became a significant item in the economy of the region, so much so as to become the object of precise instructions on the part of the ruling signorias. The tradition took root and still today the pecorino (sheep’s) cheese, in its various versions, represents one of the fundamental elements of the gastronomy of the Marches, and has different characteristics from one locality to another.
The casciotta from Urbino, protected since 1982 by the Denomination of Protected Origin guarantee, is a crumbly cheese with slight eyeing. It is semi-cooked and produced with 70-80 percent whole sheep’s milk and cows’ milk which is taken from two daily milkings and with the addition of yeasts and rennet. The caciotte or casciotte, (depending on the dialect) after having been placed in large wooden chests filled with steam at a temperature of 90° C (194° F), are immersed in brine, then dried and left for their preservation in premises with controlled temperature and humidity for about one month. The cheeses vary in dimensions, from twelve to sixteen centimetres (five to six inches) in diameter, and weigh from eight hundred to one thousand two hundred grams (one pound twelve ounces to two pounds eleven ounces); the rind is thin and of a straw-yellow colour and ripening lasts for about one month. The area of production stretches across Urbania, Sant'Angelo in Vado, Mercatello sul Metauro, Piobbico, Cagli and Fermignano.
The moulds once used in their preparation were of two types: those from Castel Durante and Urbino were in earthenware or majolica, which ties the preparation of this typical product to the ceramist tradition of the two towns. Historical evidence of this can, in fact, be found in some order contracts made at the local notaries as far back as in the Fifteen Hundreds. The moulds were made in maple or beech wood, and today, with different dimensions, are made by certain artisans from Mercatello sul Metauro or Sant'Angelo in Vado.
It is a classic table cheese which should preferably be eaten fresh in order to preserve the delicate milky flavour which gives it a hint of sweetness.
With similar criteria as those used for the Urbino caciotta, excellent caciottas are also produce in other areas of the Marches. The ones from Montefeltro are worthy of note, particularly in the area of Piandimeleto, Talamello, Sant'Agata Feltria, Pennabilli, San Leo, Fermignano, Carpegna and Sant'Angelo in Vado.
It is known as a duke’s cheese because first the dukes of Montefeltro, and then the dukes of Della Rovere followed the cheese making production with particular interest. In fact, the caciotta is mentioned in the "Commento alle Costituzioni al Ducato di Urbino" by Solone di Campello in 1545 and in particolar in the "Costituzione del Duca di Urbino".
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was also a connoisseur of this cheese.
The caciottas of this region were also appreciated by the Popes, as demonstrated by a letter dated 14th January 1761, signed by the cardinal Ganganelli (to become pope by the name of Clement XVI), in which he thanked the abbot Tocci di Cagli for having sent “some exquisite casciotte”.
The pecorino cheeses from the Marches are an expression of the micro-climates of this region, with a hilly strip of land along the coast, narrow valleys inland and harsh mountain terrain such as the Sibylline Mountains, each having different vegetation. But the processing procedures also differ, in fact, in the provinces of Pesaro, Ancona and Macerata, the cheeses, after having been salted, are scalded with whey to prevent them from being too pale and to delay the maturation. On the Sibylline Mountains, however, it is the rennet which dictates the cheese’s characteristics.
This, according to the Atlas for Typical Products of the National Institute of Rural Sociology, is prepared with aromatic herbs and by female hands: thyme (thymus serpyllum), marjoram, basil, blackberry bush shoots mixed with cloves, nutmeg, grated pecorino cheese, egg yolk, pepper and oil on days with a sky free of clouds, without wind and with a waning moon. At Monte Rinaldo, the flavour is given not only by the thyme and the other herbs and spices, but also by the suckling lamb whose stomach is used to produce the rennet. The pecorino is obtained from the curdled sheep’s milk which is ‘cooked’, salted and put in the mould.
In the area around Borgo Pace, pecorino is matured on tables in dry and well ventilated premises. Once a certain point of maturation has been reached, in order to be able to preserve it for longer and to keep it soft and buttery inside, it is placed in old vats or barrels in a cool, dark place. The mould which forms slows down the maturation process, creating particular flavours. At Talamello, on the other hand, the pecorino is wrapped in walnut leaves and matured in caves of tufa and, in places such as San Leo which does not have these caves, the cheese is put into special earthenware amphorae. At Casteldelci a particular technique survives which consists of immersing the cheeses into boiling whey and then salting them; this operation is repeated for three days.
We must give a mention to four types of cheeses which can be defined as being ‘niche’ cheeses since they are disappearing and can only be found directly from the shepherds.
The «cagliolo» cheese is an ancient preparation in existence in the countryside around Osimo. The characteristic which distinguishes this product is that of having a consistency which is somewhere between a cheese and a ricotta, eaten by being scooped up in the hand. At one time, children would eat it in the street, after having picked it up in their hands and moulded it into a ball shape.
The term «bazzott» is used to indicate a cheese which has passed the phase in which it could be defined as fresh, but which is not yet considered to be matured. It can be prepared by using only sheep’s milk, or else sheep’s milk mixed with cows’.
The «slattato» is a soft cheese prepared with whole cows' milk and preserved in dark but warm premises. As a result of the temperature, the rind splits and allows the fat substances to seep out. After maturing for only seven days, it is sold wrapped in cabbage or fig leaves. It is similar to the crescenza cheese from Lombardy and to the squacquaron from Romagna.
The «raviggiolo» is a kind of junket, round and flat in shape, similar to a focaccia flat bread; it is prepared in the spring months with sheep’s or also goats’ milk.