It was “born” around Naples on Friday. On Saturday, it boarded the first direct flight from Rome to LA in 5 years and on Sunday I am staring at it, swimming around in its whey. As soon as I cut a small slice and put it in my mouth I realize how long it has been since real buffalo mozzarella passed my lips. Firm yet yielding to the teeth, fully acidic on the tongue, fat and perfect – compared to regular mozzarella, especially American mozzarella, it’s as loud and warm as the land it comes from.
Buffalo mozzarella is made from the milk of domestic water buffalos and, although such animals are to be find in Bulgaria, Japan, Spain and a few other countries, only the cheese made in the Campania region of Italy earned an A.O.C. denomination. Buffalos might or might not have been indigenous to the boot – more likely they were either introduced by the Goths in the Middle Ages or by the Normans around the year 1,000 during the conquest of Sicily. The first recorded cheese made from buffalo milk can be traced to the 12th century but it only became widespread in the second half of the 18th. At that time all mozzarella was made from buffalo milk. Have times changed!
What in the States passes for mozzarella is more similar to plastic than to its original name bearer although there are a few local artisans around the country who make it according to its recipe – here in Los Angeles, Gioia out of Altadena does a respectable job. But if you want your pizza or your bruschetta or just your cheeseboard to shine, it’s buffalo you should be looking at. Hard to find at the market, because not many dairies own buffalos and because it’s extremely expensive and has a small audience, it is nonetheless a treat that shouldn’t be passed up should you come across it.
There are several stages to mozzarella making. First, the raw buffalo milk is stored in large steel containers and subsequently heated. It’s then curdled, using natural whey and then the curd is left in tubs for several days in order to elevate its pH. Hot water is then poured on it to soften it, allowing the cheese makers to shape it. In the old days, or in small farms, this process involved a lot of elbow grease, with kneading and stretching at its core while today this is most likely done by a machine designed for the purpose. Once shaped in rounds the mozzarella is cooled in cold water, re-immersed in its own whey and packaged. Because of its inherent acidity, it won’t last long once open in your refrigerator and it’s best consumed in one session. Not that you would want to do otherwise. And like all the best cheeses, eaten alone is the best way to do it justice.
A big thank you to Nilde and Raimondo for putting fresh buffalo mozzarella on my table.