When you first see one, you know this is no ordinary farm animal. A magnificent head suddenly rises from behind a fence – glossy black, with two long, low sweeps of horn forming an elegant headdress. She fixes you with a dignified, intelligent gaze. This is not the dumb stare of a cow, nor the uninterested glance of a horse. This is a serene and respectful show of curiosity, from an infinitely gentle animal. You instantly feel that there’s something noble about this species. She is the aristocrat of bovines.
I’m on the low-lying plains of Campania, two dozen miles inland from the colourful chaos of Naples and the gilded holiday-spots of Cápri and Sorrento. I’ve come to meet the water buffaloes upon whose udders a million balls of mozzarella depend. I’d only half-believed it when I’d heard, years earlier, that real mozzarella was made from buffalo milk. Buffaloes? In Italy? But they’ve been here for a thousand years, apparently. Shipped over from Egypt or herded across from India or Mesopotamia, brought by Arabs or by Goths – no one is quite sure how the animals got here. Whatever their provenance, the marshy conditions of inland Campania suited them nicely, and great pearly orbs of mozzarella became part of the local diet from at least the 12th century.
The cheese’s international fame was a long time coming, however. Only about three hundred years ago did mozzarella catch on across all of southern Italy, before later spreading to the New World. Like so many Italian specialities, it began life as a poor man’s foodstuff, and grew into a gourmet phenomenon. In 1993, mozzarella di bufala campana was given DOP status by the European Union, officially securing its global reputation. Today around 600,000 animals in 2,000 Italian farms lovingly produce about 33,000 tonnes of the stuff each year. Buffalo-milk mozzarella is made elsewhere in the world now, certainly, but there’s little dispute that the very best still comes from the area where it was first invented.
As if aware of her exotic lineage and immense value, the buffalo continues to stand and regard me with a regal stillness. Then she turns her streamlined, sculptural head to the nimble calf nuzzling her flank. Clean and strokeably-soft, with liquid brown eyes fringed by vast lashes, it’s impossible not to fall in love with these animals. Even the men who see them every day are not immune. Farmworkers have always affectionately given each buffalo a name of her own. Before the era of mechanized milking, the intelligent creatures would politely stroll up in turn to the milker’s stool when her name was called. Today, each automatically returns to her own stall in the milking room.
To make mozzarella, udder-fresh buffalo milk is first soured then mixed with calf’s rennet. Ripened in warm whey for a few hours, the curd becomes wonderfully stretchy, and at this point a strapping young cheesemaker will step in – stirring and folding the stuff continuously with a wooden paddle, as if hypnotized by its smoothness and elasticity. Then, only when the mozzature or expert cheese-cutter declares that the moment is right, the hot bendy cheese is cut into large balls, into bite-sized dollops (bocconcini), or woven into loaf-like plaits (trecce).
I go into the production room to watch the process. The floor is slippery beneath my regulation hygienic booties, and the air is so humid and dairy-smelling it’s like walking into a wall of atomized mozzarella. White-clad workers, all male, are busily massaging stout tubs of milky solids into ropes and spheres – working in pairs to stretch the luminous, elastic stuff before breaking lumps off and birthing the final cheeses in a bath of warm, milky water. A young worker confides that there’s often a sexual allure to the mozzarella-making process, a claim apparently backed up by the handful of women watching agog from behind plate glass as the men attentively knead the pliant contours of cheese and reverentially cup fresh-made globes in their hands.
Watch for long enough, and your eyes go funny in the weirdly monochrome environment of the production room. The big silver vats, the head-to-foot white uniforms of the cheesemen, the shining white floor, the glowy fresh cheese. You could take a black-and-white photograph in here and not really notice the difference from one in colour. Surely mozzarella is the world’s whitest cheese. As white as latex paint, as luminously translucent as finest porcelain. Everything about it screams fresh. Not a speck of colour has had time to sink in and sully it.
When it comes to eating mozzarella, the fresher the better. Ideally, you want to snaffle it up within twenty-four hours of making. Such luxury is rarely available to those of us not living in southern Italy, however, and a transported cheese suspended in a little pot of whey makes a very good second-best. To fully appreciate its mossy, faintly musky aromas, mozzarella is best eaten by itself, or served very simply with olive oil and black pepper. Classic dishes include insalata caprese – a stout ball of glistening cheese basking on a bed of basil and tomatoes, oozing buttermilk as your knife slips eagerly through it. And parmigiana di melanzane – layers of aubergine and mozzarella baked with tomato sauce and lashings of parmesan. You can melt it over pasta, stuff it into pastries, bread it and fry it as mozzarella in carrozza...
For many people, especially Americans, mozzarella is best known as a pizza topper. But unless it says ‘buffalo mozzarella’ on the menu or you buy the cheese and make the pizza yourself, you’re unlikely to be getting genuine mozzarella on the average pizza. Strictly speaking, it will be fior di latte cheese – made the same way as mozzarella, but using cow’s milk. The flavour is nowhere near as interesting, and the texture less appealing. (‘Rubbery bland goo’ neatly sums up the very worst types of pizza-top fior di latte!)
Buffalo milk is in fact quite different to that of the humble cow. The magical digestive system of water buffaloes enables them to turn low-grade vegetation into super-rich milk – with a much higher percentage of protein, fat and minerals than cow’s milk. Too rich to drink, it’s eminently suitable for cheesemaking. To make a kilogram of cheese, a maker might require 8kg of cow’s milk, but only 5kg of buffalo’s.
The problem is, there just aren’t enough of those precious buffaloes to go round. The international demand for proper mozzarella far outstrips the amount that can reasonably be made down here in the cheese’s homeland. Hence the proliferation of ‘mozzarella’ made with a percentage of cow’s milk. It’s better than nothing. But oh, how wonderful the real deal, made exclusively with southern Italian buffalo milk and eaten within a day or two of making!
I go into the nursery to meet some infant buffaloes waiting to take their place in the herd. Huge inky eyes, teddy-bear-soft black fur. The farmhand showing me the youngsters is clearly besotted with them, leaning into their enclosures to coo soft encouragements. The tiniest of the group locks eyes with me, and as I dissolve into enamoured little squeals of delight, I think of all the happiness this wobbling calf will bring future others, with her thick milk and the peerless white cheese it makes.