Where the Buffalo Roam
Buffalo, also known as American bison (Bison bison), have roamed their gated home in Golden Gate Park for over 100 years. Just to their north, the bison’s distant relative, the domestic water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) has more recently taken up residence. The presence of the domestic water buffalo on two small farms in Marin and Sonoma heralds a new beginning in California for the production of cheese made from water buffalo milk.
Domesticated thousands of years ago in Asia and a global source of protein and fat for much of the world, water buffalo have a tiny presence in North America. On this continent, our ancestors looked to dairy and beef cows (Bovinae) for their protein and fat. In more recent decades, a few companies and individuals have undertaken to breed and raise water buffalo in the United States, although their endeavors were greatly restricted by the USDA after mad cow disease swept through in the 1980s. In our area, one prior venture located in Southern California that had supplied specialty markets and restaurants as far north as the Bay Area with real buffalo milk products closed its doors in 2012. Currently, in addition to the two new ventures in our area, I have heard of only small herds located in Florida, Ohio, Texas, New Jersey and Wisconsin.
In the last couple of years, however, two intrepid men have set out to bring water buffalo to the Bay Area and launch local production of water buffalo milk and cheese. These men are Craig Ramini of Ramini Mozzarella and Andrew Zlot of Di Bufala Dairy.
With the water buffalo’s thin history in the United States and California’s lone commercial herd disbanded, why start a water buffalo herd at all? And why in Northern California?
For Andrew Zlot, it was time to return home after years spent living in Asia, time to start something new. Dairy has a long and storied history in Marin and Sonoma counties, but Zlot saw that no one was building a business around the water buffalo, a global dairy powerhouse. To someone with a graduate degree in economics, this void in the milk and cheese marketplace offered the potential to build a viable, scalable business in a region with a built-in dairy knowledge base and a populace eager to embrace well-made local products. Once there was a steady supply of buffalo milk, the renowned cheesemakers in our area could begin to experiment, as they once did with cow, goat and sheep milk.
Craig Ramini, owner of Tomales’ Ramini Mozzarella, began his water buffalo herd with the intention of making mozzarella di bufala, that ethereal, ultra-fresh product many cheese connoisseurs could enjoy, until now, only in Italy. Made famous in two juggernaut Italian dishes—insalata Caprese, slices of mozzarella di bufala layered with basil and fresh tomatoes; and Neapolitan pizza—much of the mozzarella di bufala sold in the United States is imported from Italy or Colombia. Ramini, who has Italian roots, spent time in Italy studying the ways of dairymen and cheesemakers to learn the art and the craft of making mozzarella di bufala. A cheesemaker for a mere 11 months (he was formerly a software consultant), Ramini admits he is “on the journey from novice to something more.”
Ramini started small—and says he intends to stay that way, with plans for 30 to 50 milking cows. His creamery, literally steps away from the dairy, produced three styles of water buffalo cheeses in 2012, his first year of production: mozzarella di bufala; caciotta, a fresh farmer’s cheese well-known in Italy; and ricotta di bufala. His cheeses are the very definition of artisanal, made in small batches using traditional Italian methods.
Ramini’s curd can be delivered to Bay Area chefs like John Franchetti, head chef for Rosso Pizzeria and Mozzarella Bar in Petaluma and Rosso Pizzeria in Santa Rosa [profiled in the Escoffier Questionnaire in this issue], very quickly, a mere 24 to 48 hours from the cow. This replicates the Italian experience, where the distance between the cow and the Caprese is short and the supreme freshness—cheese just a day or two from the cow—can be tasted in every bite.
Of course, area chefs are eager to have these locally produced, fresh-from-the-farm water buffalo cheeses. Last summer and into fall, Ramini delivered some of the first batches of fresh curd to Franchetti, who immediately put it on the menu, labeled as Ramini Mozzarella di Bufala Californiana.
Presented simply, with olives, garlic and roasted red peppers and a toasted almond garnish, it is a dish that is made, quite literally, a la minute. Franchetti places the fresh curd into a warm salt water bath to soften and melt, stretches it just a bit and puts it on the plate for service. “It is ready in two minutes,” he said. “It melts as you are making the cheese; you don’t even have time for bread.” Said Ramini, “Good mozzarella is room-temperature mozzarella. Refrigeration dooms it. It must be a local food.”
Also on Rosso’s menu was Ramini’s ricotta di bufala. It is firmer than the slippery mozzarella and porcelain white (like buffalo milk itself), with a texture akin to petite-pearl tapioca. Franchetti tossed it with roasted Brussels sprouts, sage and walnuts. Franchetti told me eagerly awaits his next batch of Ramini curd, anticipated later this spring. “I’ll be making buffalo burrata,” he said.
In Italy, where the tradition of Neapolitan pizza began in the region of Campania, the traditional—nay, expected— cheese used to top your 00 (extra-fine-ground) flour, thin and blistered-crust pizza, is mozzarella di bufala. “In Naples, when they say ‘mozzarella,’ it is a given that they mean water buffalo mozzarella,” said Ramini. But, then again, water buffalo have lived on Italian soil for over 1,000 years and total milk production in 2008 exceeded 33,000 tons.
In San Anselmo, Louise Franz’s Pizzalina melds the Neapolitan and Californian approaches to food, to prepare food simply using the best local ingredients. “The foundation,” she says, “of Neapolitan pizza is the mozzarella.” Franz took her first batch of Ramini’s ricotta and made gnocchi. On the menu for one day last October, it sold out instantaneously. The first batch of Ramini’s curd was similarly well received.
“It is so fresh, you can almost taste the grass,” said Franz. “You do not want to mask the beauty of this product, but focus on its great flavor.” Like Franchetti, Franz prepares the water buffalo mozzarella to order before placing it on a pizza with tomato, black kale and garlic.
So what is it about buffalo mozzarella that makes it such a unique agricultural product? At approximately 8% butterfat, water buffalo milk averages twice the butterfat of cow milk. There are seasonal changes in the amount of fats in any cow’s milk, but even at winter’s high of around 4% for a Holstein, for example (during the summer it runs about 3.4% to 3.7% butterfat), the texture and taste of a buffalo cow’s milk, because of that extra fat and other biological differences, is peerless. Drunk straight from the animal, buffalo milk has a tangy freshness that sets it, once again, apart from dairy cow milk.Worldwide, dairy cows and their milk differ from water buffalo in other significant ways. Over many generations, cows in the United States were bred for dairying and developed enormous udders. While lactating, “a Holstein can produce eight to 12 gallons per day,” says Zlot, while “a lactating water buffalo yields around two gallons per day.”
The Italians, with their long history of breeding and milking water buffalo, over time yield about 30% more milk per animal than their contemporary American counterparts. “Many water buffalo here were bred for their meat,” says Zlot, “and produce just enough milk for their calf.” Their udders, like those of beef cattle, are sized for their biological needs.
Though cows and water buffalo both develop conditioned reflexes for milking (the call of the milker, the noise of the milk pump or the act of entering the milking barn), and experience let down (milk flow) after priming (the tactile stimulation of the udder’s nipples), the release of oxytocin in cows happens more quickly than with water buffalo. The speed with which a cow releases oxytocin, the hormone required for milk to flow, is usually about 90 seconds, but with a water buffalo “the oxytocin pulses slowly and comes in spurts,” says Curtis Fjelstul, Zlot’s business partner and Di Bufala Dairy’s dairy manager. A cow can give her eight to 12 gallons in three minutes. The water buffalo? Fifteen minutes of milking are required for those two gallons.
Stories persist about the difficulty of training water buffalo to milk, but Fjelstul believes they are similar to any other milking animal. Socialize them from the get-go and they will train to milk. To minimize any stress to buffalo that may not be familiar with milking and to develop a consistent milking routine, Zlot relies on Fjelstul for his innate talent in working with milking animals. Likened by Zlot to the famous horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, Fjelstul took his familiarity in working with dairy cows and applied it to the Di Bufala Dairy herd.
“There is a perception of these animals as ornery and dangerous,” says Zlot, “but you need a dairyman like Curtis who can treat the animals with patience and forgiveness. It takes an hour to get 15 gallons from 11 animals. It is more about the process than the product.”
In operation for just over a year, Zlot’s herd is small, a total of 40 head with 11 milking at the time of this writing and 10 bred heifers. His production is tiny. The effort seems herculean. “You have to start small,” says Zlot. It is scalable, he said. “You need to train the leaders and the rest will fall in line.”
As at Ramini Mozzarella, Di Bufala Dairy is experimenting with how to turn the raw material into marketable products. A few months ago, Zlot began working with Alissa Shethar at North Bay Curds & Whey. Shethar is known for her craftsmanship with aged cheeses.
Using milk from Di Bufala Dairy, Shethar began with a buffalo Manchego and canestrato, an Italian basket cheese, and is looking at ricotta and crème fraîche. “There is a rumor in the cheese community that aging buffalo milk cheeses can be tricky,” said Shethar, “because bitterness can arise.” Placing them in an aging room along with other cheeses, she checks frequently for how the cheeses are maturing.
Like other cheeses, the precise steps of the cheesemaker and the close monitoring of the biological processes that change milk to cheese, along with the sweet grass and silage mix that the buffalo eat—unique to each farm—contribute to the distinctive taste and texture of buffalo cheeses.
The history of water buffalo milk and cheeses in the United States is a short one, full of anecdotal evidence and rumors. Ranching and dairying families have not passed along multiple generations’ worth of experience with buffalo, as they have with dairy and beef cows.
But in our neck of the woods, we are fortunate that a few pioneers are stepping out to learn their new businesses the old fashioned way, one day at a time. The road to success is not guaranteed, but as any fan of handcrafted artisan cheese will attest, the anticipation makes the cheese taste all the better.
With so many mozzarellas out there and Californian buffalo mozzarella on the way, we offer a primer.
According to Roberto Ferrante, supplier of cow’s milk curd and mozzarella to chefs throughout Northern California, there are a few important differences in what people might commonly refer to as “mozzarella.”
For low-moisture mozzarella, steam at 100° to 110°F. is added when the curds are cut and any additional whey is allowed to drain out, making the cheese quite firm and more yellowish than other mozzarellas. Not usually considered a fresh cheese, it has more salt than other mozzarellas, shreds more easily and lasts longer, up to six months. Many pizzerias use it, but it cannot technically be used for Neapolitan pizza.
Fior di latte or the “flower of milk” in Italian, is a term usually used in the US to mean a fresh, unaged cow’s milk mozzarella, but can be used for mozzarella that has been aged up to a week in brine or in vacuum-sealed packages. In Italy, fior di latte is traditionally served the day after it is made and uses cow’s milk.
Water buffalo mozzarella must be made exclusively with the milk of the water buffalo. In Italy, mozzarella di bufala campana carries DOC status and must be made from milk produced in an area that stretches from Rome to south of Salerno. Water buffalo milk mozzarella imported to the US from Italy comes in two forms: 24- to 48-hour-old fresh cheese, which is flown in and is shelf-stable for about 35 days; and frozen cheese, which is shelf-stable for six months.