All great cheese starts with quality milk. That milk can be sourced from a variety of animals, from cows (think: cheddar) to sheep (think: manchego) to goats (think chevre). Today I’m going to talk about cheese made from the milk of water buffalos. That’s right: water buffalo. How else do you think mozzarella di bufala got its name?
Now, before your imagination starts conjuring up visions of huge, mean animals with fierce horns roaming the Mekong Delta, let’s talk a little bit about the animal that produces the delicious milk we find in buffalo’s milk cheese. There are two kinds of water buffalo: wild and domesticated. Wild water buffalo are considered an endangered species, so we don’t mess with them. They are free to roam and live their lives.
The domesticated water buffalo, on the other hand, plays a significant role in many people’s diets, particularly in Asian (especially Indian) and Italian cultures. Farmers rely on water buffalo for farming, both to do the heavy work in the fields and to fertilize the land with their dung. Water buffalo are also a prized source of meat and milk in those areas. There aren’t many water buffalo in the United States, and the industry has become even more niche in recent years. One water buffalo dairy farm in Vermont recently relocated its herd to Quebec, Canada. Another farmer, who keeps a water buffalo herd in Wisconsin, is entering his second year of milking, but purposefully keeps his herd’s milk production rate low. Most of the mozzarella di bufala that we see in the US is imported straight from the traditional source: Italy.
Like most European producers, the Italians are very proprietary when it comes to the cheese they’re known for: buffalo mozzarella, or mozzarella di bufala. Almost all mozzarella di bufala is produced under stringent regulations in only a handful of provinces in Campania, a region in southern Italy. Exactly how and when water buffalo made their first appearance in Italy is a varied tale, but there is evidence that Italian people began making cheese from water buffalo’s milk as early as the 12th century. In 1993, mozzarella di bufala earned the designation D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). What does that mean? If you see “D.O.P.” marked on your scrumptious package of mozzarella di bufala, then you know for a fact that it was produced in one of the seven regions in Italy under the stringent quality regulations pertaining to freshness, temperature and milk sourcing. In other words: it’s the good stuff.
Mozzarella di bufala is made in a specific manner that is wholly unique to this cheese. So it’s no wonder that it’s an entirely different product than the mozzarella-flavored string cheese or even American-produced fresh mozzarella, both of which are most likely to be made with cow’s milk. For mozzarella di buffalo, the buffalo’s milk is curdled, then drained of the whey. (The whey is retained to make ricotta cheese.) The curd is then cut into small pieces and ground until crumbly. The curd is put in hot water, where it is stirred until it takes on a rubbery texture, then it’s kneaded until a smooth, shiny cheese is obtained. Once the right consistency is reached, the mozzarella is pulled (kind of like taffy) and squeezed into individuals knobs and placed in a brine. The flavor of the cheese is enhanced as it absorbs salt from the brine. Mozzarella di bufala is available in various shapes and sizes, from little bite-sized balls called bocconcini to large, plump mounds, to braided styles.
Now that you know more about buffalo’s milk cheese and how it’s made, do you want to know how to enjoy this fresh and delicious cheese? Mozzarella di bufalo is so versatile. It melts beautifully, so try finishing pizza and pastas with it. You can also try rubbing grilled bread with a fresh cut garlic clove, then topping it with fresh herbs, a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and fresh slices of mozzarella di bufala. In the classic insalata caprese, a summer staple at my house, I pair it with fresh tomatoes and sweet basil and dress everything with extra-virgin olive oil.
Pairing Suggestions: To wash down your lovely cheese, no matter how you choose to serve (or order) it, I suggest a crisp pinot gris or rosé. Prefer beer? A light pilsner pairs nicely on a hot summer day.
We want to know: what’s your favorite kind of cheese? What do you eat or drink with it?
Annie Lehrer is a nurse practitioner who will soon be a farm girl and cheesemaker. Born and raised in St. Louis, she’s been in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother since she can remember. Having a house full of family, friends and delicious food is her idea of the perfect way to spend an evening. A former travel nurse, Annie has lived in various cities across the U.S. exploring diverse culinary scenes. Food—and everything associated with it, from earth to belly—is her passion. She dwells in downtown St. Louis with her cheesemonger husband, Simon. When not caring for patients at the hospital, Annie is swillin’ craft beer with her beer nerd crew, researching livestock, writing recipes, planning chicken coop designs, keeping up with the St. Louis art scene and spending time with her big Lebanese family. She loves cheese. She writes about all things cheese on her blog The Cheesemonger’s Wife. She’s funny as hell. You can try and keep up with her crazy life on Twitter.