All morning, as we zoomed down south from Naples on a motorcycle, inky clouds had threatened rain. So when we arrive at Rivabianca, a mozzarella di bufala cooperative in the village of Paestum, with our clothes still dry, we exhale deeply, not realizing that we had been holding our breath.
Inside the dairy’s production center, separated from the small shop by large windows and a big metal door, it looks as if the rain has already come and gone – the tile floor is covered in water. “Wait just a sec, you’ll need these to go inside,” says Rosa Maria Wedig, the owner of Rivabianca, handing us two plastic bags. Before we can make a move, she’s bending down and shoving them on our feet, using duct tape to secure them around our ankles.
Armed with makeshift galoshes, we slip and slide our way across the floor, following the statuesque Rosa Maria to a large rectangular metal tub filled with a cloudy liquid and seemingly little else. She dips her hand in and swirls it around. An oversize buffalo mozzarella braid, smooth and bright white, bobs up like an albino manatee.
The fresh cheese is the reason for this wet habitat and what we’ve come to see (and taste). The Rivabianca cooperative is one of many buffalo mozzarella dairies in the plain of Paestum, fertile grassland that stretches along the coastline south of the city of Salerno. Buffalo mozzarella, made with the fattier and more concentrated milk of water buffaloes, has traditionally been manufactured in the Campania region, particularly in the provinces of Salerno, where Paestum is located, and Caserta, an area northwest of Naples (the city is smack in the middle of Italy’s mozzarella belt). Paestum’s proximity to Naples and the Amalfi Coast make it a popular culinary destination in the summer, particularly with locals who drive up and down the area’s “Mozzarella Road,” stopping at different dairies to taste the goods.
Mozzarella from the region – officially called Mozzarella di Bufala Campana – even has a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin) label, assuming that it’s produced by one of the dairies belonging to the Consorzio di Tutela della Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, the consortium that oversees the creation and promotion of the local product. One such dairy is Rivabianca, a cooperative founded in 1993 by four families of farmers and today mainly run by women, and the first stop on our mozzarella pilgrimage.
We have come early enough to watch the mastri casari, or master dairy producers, in action. Rosa Maria explains that the milking occurs around 2 a.m. at the nearby stables. The milk, usually around 400 liters of it, is heated up to 38 degrees Celsius, after which calf rennet and vegetable rennet are added to separate the whey from the curd. We watch as curd that has sat for three hours at room temperature goes into the shredder. The small jagged pieces, which look like a cross between scrambled eggs and tofu, are then doused in boiling water.
It’s at the moment when curd meets boiling water that the magic happens. The workers begin kneading and stretching the cheese to create pasta filata (literally “spun paste”), which has the heft of lava but the smooth shine of porcelain. “It’s amazing to me how such an ugly curd becomes such a smooth, beautiful cheese,” remarks Rosa Maria.
The name mozzarella comes from the Italian verb mozzare, which means to cut off, the next step in the process after the silky pasta filata has been removed from the boiling water. The workers, four men and one woman, clad in white and with muscular forearms, begin cutting the fresh cheese and shaping it into large braids, dunking the mozzarella (and their hands) in a vat of fresh cool water, almost like a baptismal rite. “You can tell a good cheesemaker because their hands are calloused,” Rosa Maria explains. Properly handling the hot mozzarella and ensuring it cools down at just the right rate lest its skin develops liquid-filled boils requires a feel developed over time – it’s not something you can learn from a book or a YouTube video.
The timings and temperatures of this coordinated routine are precise and change depending on the time of year and whether the mozzarella will be hand cut or shaped by machine. One thing that’s consistent, though, is the use of raw milk. Pasteurizing would be an added cost for Rivabianca, one that would require them to use a lot more milk to turn a profit (and would almost surely alter the taste of their cheese). “Fortunately we can continue this work because we’re in Europe,” Rosa Maria tells us as we watch two women package large balls of mozzarella by hand. “In France, they love raw-milk cheese.”
The mozzarella is kept in brine with varying levels of salt depending on how far it has to travel and how long it needs to keep (at most up to ten days). The shop here, however, only sells the freshest hand-cut mozzarella. After we exit the damp production rooms, Rosa Maria goes behind the counter and sticks her hand in a vat, pulling out an epsilon-shaped chunk of the fresh cheese. She cuts it in half, and we scoop up our piece before all the juices escape. It has the texture of silk and melts in our mouth, the glossy texture making more of an impression than the light clean taste, which contains barely a hint of salt.
Outside the sky has opened up, and we arrive at the next dairy on our list, Tenuta Vannulo, completely soaked and take shelter in the main showroom, which resembles a well appointed if out-of-place alpine ski lodge. Many of the visitors, a mix of Italians and foreigners, are foregoing the buffalo ice cream and yogurt on this rainy day and instead drinking coffee and eating cinnamon buns and other pastries made with buffalo milk.
Vannulo is considered the gold standard of buffalo dairies. In 1996, they were one of the first dairies in the region to be certified as organic by ICEA (Istituto per la Certificazione Etica e Ambientale, a private certification agency accredited by the Italian Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies) back before it was popular. Their buffaloes, around 300 adults and 300 calves at any given time, listen to classical music first thing in the morning and have constant access to large freestanding brushes that they use to give themselves massages. “We believe that a relaxed buffalo produces better milk,” says Rosaria, our tour guide. “And really good milk is the most important ingredient in mozzarella.”
Perhaps the most unique component of their well-stocked stables are the four high-tech milking machines made by the Swedish company DeLaval. The buffaloes are free to eat whenever they want, but to access the food they must first stop at a gate, where a microchip in the buffalo’s neck is scanned. Based on the information in the chip, which includes the quantity and quality of milk each buffalo produces and how many times she has gone into the machine that day, she will either be directed into the food pen or the fully-automated milking machine.
As we walk around the stables eyeing up the pampered animals, Rosaria reminds us that these are water buffaloes, not bison (although one look at the wide-horned beasts should hopefully disabuse you of that notion). “They arrived from India 2,000 years ago, but now they’ve got Italian citizenship,” she jokes.
“Whenever I tell people that water buffaloes give us mozzarella, I often get puzzled looks,” Eleonora Baldwin, an Italian cheese expert and the host of ABCheese, a program on the Italian food and wine publishing group Gambero Rosso’s television channel, later tells us.
There are many conflicting theories about how, exactly, these creatures got to Italy. “The theory I find more believable is that the introduction occurred during the Norman period in Sicily, where the animals arrived on ships towards the end of the 10th century over the course of Saracen and Moorish invasions,” says Eleonora. “From Sicily, under Fredrick II and the period between 1189-1266 they slowly migrated to the current breeding areas.” What’s evident is that the buffalo, with its large, flat hooves, thrived in Campania’s marshy low lands.
This theory jives with the first documents that are believed to make mention of mozzarella. According to records from the 12th century, when the Normans controlled southern Italy, the monks of Capua and Aversa welcomed the pilgrims with a fresh cheese made of buffalo milk called mozza or provatura.
The 18th and early 19th centuries saw the production of buffalo mozzarella on a grander scale. The Bourbons began breeding buffaloes and built experimental dairies at Reggia di Carditello (the Royal Palace of Carditello) and Reggia di Persano (the Royal Palace of Persano), both located on wetlands, to transform their milk into cheese. Yet after the unification of Italy was proclaimed in 1861, industrial production became concentrated in the north; buffalo mozzarella production, like most other southern industries, slowly died out.
The few remaining buffalo dairies came to a grinding halt during the Second World War. “Animals were no longer used for farming, they were captured and slaughtered for food,” explains Eleonora. “This caused a near extinction of the breed.” Moreover, many of the swampy areas in the region were bonificati, reclaimed, and dried out in a massive labor effort promoted by Mussolini.
“The resurgence of mozzarella di bufala is due to the fact that it has remained an artisanal, handmade product.”
Buffalo mozzarella production began to pick up again in the 1980s (Vannulo opened its first mozzarella store in 1988), parallel to the emergence of a movement in Italy valorizing regional products. “In my opinion, the resurgence of mozzarella di bufala is due to the fact that it has remained an artisanal, handmade product – even in larger industrial productions, most of the mozzarella is still cut by human hands,” says Eleonora. “And it still tastes incredible, like it did hundreds of years ago!”
Just as the taste of mozzarella hasn’t changed much, neither has the cheese’s short shelf life. Although today’s refrigeration and transportation technologies allow for buffalo mozzarella to be transported along the whole boot and even abroad, the dairies must still contend with the difficult logistics of selling fresh raw-milk cheese that should really be eaten within a few days of its production. It’s no wonder that every producer we spoke to emphasized that most of their sales come in the summer, when the region sees an influx of local and foreign visitors.
Vannulo’s solution is to sell all their buffalo mozzarella at the farm, with each customer limited to 5 kg per day. Each day’s stock – around 100 kg – usually sells out by the early afternoon, although latecomers can still purchase a cup of tangy buffalo yogurt or gelato made of buffalo milk. We are able to snag a few aversana, large balls of mozzarella that range in size from 500 grams to 3 kg. It tastes bright and creamy with a hint of tang – we’re not ashamed to admit we polished off two in rapid succession.
Our next stop, at Caseificio Giuliano in Eboli, is decidedly more low-key. The small, no-frills store is attached to a house and manned by an older woman, who, we would later learn, is the mother of the three brothers, Carmine, Roberto and Nicola, running the dairy.
Despite being third-generation buffalo dairymen, they only began producing their own mozzarella in 2008, the year that a dioxin scandal hit the industry. High levels of the carcinogen, a result of the illegal dumping of toxic waste, were found at certain dairies in Campania. “Even though only four or five producers in Caserta were involved with the scandal, it affected the entire industry,” says Carmine.
“It’s very hard to break into the market – we’re too big to be a truly local business and too small to be a national cheesemaking company,” he says. “It’s a difficult position to negotiate.” Unable to keep up with the production required by supermarkets, they usually make around 50 kg of mozzarella per day – more or less depending on requests from customers – a few other cheeses and then sell any leftover milk to other dairies. Most of their mozzarella is sold at their shop, but they also supply the white gold to a few wine bars and restaurants in Italy and France, places that put an emphasis on high-quality products.
In 2015, as a way to differentiate their dairy and abide by their principles (the brothers are staunch critics of industrially produced milk), they joined the Associazione Latte Nobile Italiano, which requires that animals be fed only herbs and hay that’s naturally free of GMOs and filler. They are the only buffalo dairy to be certified producers of latte nobile.
Carmine shows us the fields in the back of the property where they grow the local herbs that they feed to the animals. On the way, we pass by the stables, where the buffaloes run to the front of the fence to see who’s there, holding eye contact like curious schoolchildren.
Back at the shop, the previously gruff Carmine has a smile on his face as he cracks open freshly packed bags of mozzarella and gives us four or five bocconcini (meaning “little bites,” they are 50 or 60 grams in size) and a few mozzarella balls. As soon as our teeth break the smooth skin of the mozzarella, an intricate, nutty flavor coats our mouth. There’s a depth to their mozzarella that makes the other ones we’ve tried seem overly restrained in comparison. The taste is more animal-like, in the best way possible. When paired with the buffalo salami that Carmine slices for us, it’s sublime.
We didn’t know there was such a thing as a cheese coma, but we’re in one as we get off the bike at Caseificio Jemma, located a bit further north in Battipaglia. Opened in 1999, the store has a retro vibe and the dairy, the largest we’ve seen today, is large and airy.
As we tour the empty yet buzzing production rooms, our guide tells us that they have 600 buffaloes on an azienda (farm) around 7 km away. They average 500 kg of mozzarella per day, which is not surprising given the size of the place. Most of their cheese is sold locally, but they also ship it to northern Italy, Spain, Germany, Finland and Holland.
Four mozzarella balls are staring us down as we re-enter the shop. Despite the cheese-induced stupor, we bite into one, finding it deliciously full-bodied although without the nuance of Giuliano’s mozzarella. Even though we’re stuffed, we finish the rest. As Eleonora Baldwin later tells us, “Biting into a warm ball of Mozzarella di Bufala Campana straight from the salt bath, whey dribbling down your chin and arm, is one of the best joys of life.” It’s a joy we’re not passing up, full stomach be damned.