More challenging to produce due to highly sensitive herds, these cheeses are worth the efforts of its producers
We don’t have to tell you that Mozzarella di Bufala is a miraculous food. One bite of its milky, sweet, pure, gooey, silky perfection is all it takes to convert chefs, diners, consumers and foodies.
Its nearly sole ingredient is water buffalo milk. What is it about buffalo milk that’s so special? The substance contains about twice the fat of cow’s milk, making it creamy and decadent. Despite the higher fat content, the amount of cholesterol of water buffalo milk is lower than cow’s milk. The protein content is also 30 percent higher than that of cow’s milk, which creates its distinctive, luscious richness. “It has a flavor that is uniquely its own. The milk is also sweeter, which really stands out in fresh cheeses,” says David DiLoreto, owner of Fading D Farm, a family-owned farmstead water buffalo dairy in Salisbury, NC, which he runs with his wife Faythe. The fact that water buffalo milk does not contain significant amounts of carotene accounts for its pearly white, nearly translucent appearance. People with sensitivities to dairy and lactose often have a positive experience with buffalo milk, because it has more short- and medium-chain fatty acids than cow’s milk and smaller fat globules. It’s also full of more calcium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and vitamins A, B (especially B-6 and B-12) and E. All of this would be inconsequential if the milk weren’t so silky smooth, sweetly mild and absolutely delicious.
Water buffalo have a long history. In Asia, they’ve been bred and raised for centuries for their quality meat and dairy products, plus their ability to pull heavy loads. Most of the water buffalo that produce milk for cheese are descendants of Italian and Romanian animals. Since the Middle Ages, their milk has been feeding sizeable populations throughout Italy and the Balkans. In parts of Africa and in India, buffalo milk is enjoyed fresh and transformed into yogurt, ghee and paneer. And of course, there is Mozzarella di Bufala.
In much of “Southeast Asia and South America, there is more water buffalo milk than cow’s milk,” says Kent Underwood, who works at Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co. In the United States, we’re not so lucky. Despite folklore, buffalo are not native to this country. The animals we refer to as “buffalo” are technically bison.
Underwood became deeply knowledgeable about water buffalo in 2004, when he began working at Woodstock Water Buffalo Co., a small farmstead operation in Vermont that crafted yogurt and Mozzarella from their own small herd of water buffalo (the company has since been sold). “I’ve probably milked more water buffalo than anyone in North America,” says Underwood.
Our country is far behind the rest of the world in terms of breeding and raising water buffalo for dairy, says Underwood. This deficit is because we lack the tradition of water buffalo dairying. The genetics are poor and the economic demands are significant. We don’t have the availability of breeds, or a large population of the animals, in this country. Or not yet. Thanks to pioneers like DiLoreto, and hungry consumers, that could change one day.
Sought After, Yet Scarce
Cheesemakers agree raising and milking water buffalo presents unique and multiple challenges.
The average water buffalo produces 12 to 18 pounds of milk a day, compared to a Holstein cow, which gives 60 to 80 pounds daily. “They produce about as much as a good goat, but take the feed and resources of a large cow,” explains DiLoreto. “To raise buffalo and have good quality milk, you really have to know what you’re doing,” says
Michele Buster, vice president and co-founder of Forever Cheese, located in Long Island City, NY.
Water buffalo are hearty, but they’re incredibly particular. The animals are “very intelligent and for lack of a better term ‘sensitive,’” says DiLoreto. “They don’t adapt well to large-scale industrial-type production. They have to know and feel comfortable with the person who is handling them.”
DiLoreto quickly learned that if the environment of the milking parlor changed or a stranger came to visit, the water buffalos would either not let down, or only partially let down, their milk. Production would drop dramatically. His team had to get to know the water buffalo and vice versa, day in and day out. “Talking calmly, brushing the buffalo while milking and playing soft music all helps the buffalo to relax and give up their precious resource,” explains DiLoreto. Talk about high maintenance. There are a few small buffalo milk farms in the United States, but no North American water buffalo dairies have reached broad or national distribution.
Once the milk has been gathered, the difficulties only increase. Making cheese from buffalo milk is vastly different from crafting cheese with cow, goat or sheep’s milk. “Density, properties, timing, coagulation, drainage, how the whey separates from the curd — it’s all different,” says Buster. But there are plenty of reasons to overcome these hurdles. Buffalo milk’s unique properties can make for truly fantastic cheeses.
Imported Mozzarella di Bufala performs well in American markets, as does buffalo milk Burrata, and the even harder to find Stracciatella. With our current appreciation for all things local, there’s reason to think quality domestic versions would be incredibly popular. Plus, there’s nothing quite like super-fresh buffalo milk cheese. “Mozzarella di Bufala is always wonderful, but a hundred times more so when it’s still warm from stretching,” says DiLoreto. Flavors of the fresh milk shine through, with just a hint of pleasant sourness on the finish.
Not all Mozzarella di Bufala must come from Italy. Deca & Otto crafts buffalo milk cheeses in the northern prairies of Colombia. Named after their first water buffalo, Deca, and the bird that likes to perch atop her head, Otto, the company’s animals graze freely on the pastures of small family farms. From their milk, Deca & Otto make Mozzarella, Burrata, dulce de leche, and tangy, dense yogurt.
If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on a fresh piece of Mozzarella di Bufala or Burrata, there’s no need to do much beyond digging in. A drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt is perfect, as is the addition of ripe tomatoes and fragrant basil for a classic Caprese salad. Pair with beer with floral and spicy flavors, like a Saison or a Belgium Trappist, or a minerally white wine, like a Sauvignon Blanc. Light and fruity reds, such as Beaujolais, also make a great companion for milky, mild fresh cheeses.
Beyond Mozzarella di Bufala
About 10 years ago, Buster met brothers Bruno and Alfio Gritti at a food trade show in Milan. The Grittis raise Mediterranean buffalo on their sustainable farm and cheese dairy in Cologno al Serio, a province of Bergamo in Lombardy, Italy. Bruno and Alfio grew up on a cow dairy farm near Bergamo. It was their dad, Renato Gritti, who founded the dairy in 1968. In 2000, they made a conscious decision to change something big. The brothers bought 40 fine water buffalo from a neighboring farm, and Caseificio Quattro Portoni was born. The transition from cows to water buffalo was a long, arduous process. They had to get to know the animal and its particular ways. Today, they have a herd of a thousand animals that eat a GMO- and soy-free diet, with lots of fresh hay and sorghum.
In Southern Italy, fresh buffalo milk cheeses like Mozzarella and Stracciatella are ubiquitous and beloved. But in Lombardy, in the north, the cheese tradition is vastly different. The cheeses Grana Padano, Gorgonzola and Taleggio hail from this region. The Gritti brothers did something truly revolutionary by making completely new cheeses. “Before them, nobody thought to make aged buffalo cheese. The whole industry owes them credit,” says Buster of Quattro Portoni. They turn their highest quality buffalo milk into nearly 20 unique cheeses, many inspired by the time-honored cheeses of their region.
Their Casatica di Bufala is a soft-ripened Stracchino-style cheese, so custardy it’s barely restrained by its bloomy rind. It’s rich and creamy, and a perfect match for prosecco.
The Gritti brother’s update on a classic Lombardian Taleggio recipe is a cheese called Quadrello di Bufala. Creamy, sweet and robustly pungent, there’s a mushroom funk and sour tang that is more than a bit addictive.
Blu di Bufala is a cube-shaped cheese with a perfect balance of milky sweetness and punchy blue veining. It has a crumby texture and a surprisingly creamy mouthfeel. Blu di Bufala is excellent for snacking, salads and topping crostini, and a delicious foil to Moscato d’Asti.
Back in the United States, DiLoreto and his team at Fading D Farm make some wonderful, original buffalo milk cheeses. Sapore means “flavor,” which is why they named their strongest, sharpest cheese Sapore. It’s a lovely melter and a star in simple pasta with marinara sauce. “Faythe makes a ravioli with this, and the stronger flavor of the Sapore is not overpowered by the sauce but instead blends to make a very smooth, flavorful dish,” explains DiLoreta.
For now, these products are hard to come by. Any cheese lover who finds local or domestic buffalo cheeses should savor them, and remember that raising water buffalo is a tough endeavor. The products can be expensive, but great buffalo milk cheeses are well worth it.