We walked past Gastronomia Beltrami—twice—before we spotted the entrance, partially hidden behind a leafy tree. Inside, a heady aroma of cheese greeted us, a reassuring indication that we had come to the right place. Glass cases were filled with pecorino cheese, made from the milk of the family’s sheep. Disks of fresh goat cheese decorated with herbs and dainty leaves were arranged as in a jeweler’s case. We were in Cartoceto to meet Vittorio Beltrami, master cheese maker and one of the town’s best known advocates.
Fruit jams lined shelves along two walls and nearby, bottles of olive oil and wine jostled for space. Papers, maps and guidebooks were stacked on counters. This was clutter with a purpose: to showcase the family’s highly regarded farm products. The inviting, informal setting of the best-known shop in Cartoceto soon had us wanting to read every label, have a seat at the tasting table in the center of the shop and take home one of just about everything.
In the beginning—and still—olive oil
Cartoceto nestles in the Valley of the Maureto River in the Province of Pesaro e Urbino, about 50 kilometers north of Ancona. The area is protected from the harsh winds of the Appennines and warmed by sea breezes wafting up the river. Olives have been cultivated in this part of Le Marche for centuries, and the Beltrami family has grown olives here since the 19th century.
In the 1960s, Vittorio Beltrami’s father set up a tabacchi shop selling, among other things, the family’s olive oil. Today, the Beltrami family and other Cartoceto growers, with their groves primarily of Leccino, Frantoio and Raggiola olive varieties, produce Le Marche’s first and only DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) extra virgin olive oil. The oil from Cartoceto is very fine, golden with a green hue. Its fruity aroma is fresh, redolent of herbs and almonds, and on the palate, spicy and slightly bitter.
Since 1977, Cartoceto’s annual Oil and Olive Fair has promoted local products and ancient traditions. Over four days in November, producers display and sell an array of eno-gastronomic delights: olive oil and olives, honey, cheese, new wine, and salumi, to name just a few. Guided tastings, music, and art and photography exhibitions add to the harvest-season vibe. When the fair is in town, Cartoceto’s Piazza Garibaldi becomes a lively market, under the watchful gaze of the Palazzo del Popolo and its clock tower.
In 1980, Vittorio Beltrami and his wife Elide took over the family business. They expanded the shop’s repertoire to include cheese and jams and gave it a new name. Today, making olive oil, jams and cheese continues to be a family affair. A signboard outside the shop invites guests to enjoy several house specialties: blackberry jam, local sweets, and an “ottima” pizza of the day. We were there primarily for the cheeses, but I would love to return and sample more of the shop’s delights.
“Retroinnovazione…with our cheeses, with our oil, with our work”
Vittorio Beltrami calls his family’s philosophy Retronnovazione or “Retro-Innovation”, with the past as a starting point and innovations for the present and future made with respect and harmony with the environment. They consider it vital to control the entire production chain, to make cheese by hand from start to finish. James Martin of Wandering Italy describes it as nurturing the best of the past to bring it to light in the present. It is a personal philosophy the world could certainly use more of these days, to fuel positive change on many fronts.
The cheese master has a passion for his goats, who live in harmony with nature, in a wild area away from town. And Vittorio Beltrami has a passion for cheese, too. He, Elide, and daughter Cristiana work together to produce both fresh and extremely aged cheese. The Beltramis use rennet from fig leaves to curdle the milk, a vegetarian process akin to that used to make the “thistle cheeses” of Portugal. Each round is lovingly decorated by hand. These fresh, raw milk cheeses are lightly flavored with flower petals, pomegranate seeds and various herbs. Irresistible! My favorite was a lemony soft goat cheese, just right for a summer evening aperitif with a glass of Petrignone from the Sbaffi winery in nearby Fabriano.
Formaggio de fossa
Formaggio de fossa, or “pit cheese” is a form of cheese making with its roots in the 15th century, when farmers hid their cheese in caves to hide it from Aragonese soldiers plundering the countryside. These cave-aged cheeses are a celebrated staple of both Marche and neighboring Emilia Romagna.
The Beltrami family’s rendition of this cheese—musty, sharp and crumbly—is renowned across Italy and beyond. Marmalades from wild berries pair especially well with these cheeses, such as the aromatic and strongly flavored “Ovillis Ambrosia”. This was another cheese we just had to take away with us, to enjoy later with a strong red wine or glass of port.
A happy post-trip discovery: Back home in Porto, we found that the sublime Pecorino Stagionato in Fossa from Gastronomia Beltrami pairs beautifully with aged Tawny Port.
If you go to Cartoceto
- Be sure to taste both olive oil and cheese! And if you are a fan of strong, earthy cheeses, Gastronomia Beltrami is an excellent place to sample cave-aged specialties.
- In Le Marche in November? Consider attending the long-running Oil and Olive Fair.
- Pro Loco Cartoceto organizes summer events for foodies, too: “Cartoceto con gusto e tradizione” (Cartoceto with taste and tradition) celebrates Vincisgrassi, the region’s version of lasagna, and other local specialties.
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