Business Times - 16 May 2009
Mozzarella comes chiefly from Italy's Campania region and since the 12th century at least, buffaloes have given the world fresh, pillow-soft, white mozzarella cheese.
THE Italian buffalo is a massive beast, with eyes that glow red, and a bony rump. Resistant to any change in routine, it is happiest wallowing in mud, lying in the pasture and poking its wet nose into a mound of feed. It has nothing in common with Botticelli's Primavera or Donatello's David. But since the 12th century at least, buffaloes have given the world something arguably as good: fresh, pillow-soft, white mozzarella cheese.
Mozzarella comes chiefly from Italy's Campania region around Naples. Although theories abound, no one knows when or how the buffalo first arrived from Africa and Asia. Frankly, I don't care as long as my diet regularly includes fresh mozzarella.
My passion for the cheese recently led me on a driving tour to the traditional land of mozzarella. About an hour south of Rome, I turned off the E45 Autostrada at the Caianello exit, got on a country road that seemed headed toward the mountains and eventually found La Fenice, a mozzarella dairy, or 'caseificio', outside the hamlet of Presenzano.
At the hangar-like building in the middle of farm fields, I got my first whiff of buffalo, so rank it could make a shovel stand up on its own. But the little shop in front was ruthlessly clean, its display case heaped with dairy products such as buffalo milk pudding and ricotta.
Then I spied the vat where fresh mozzarella balls bobbed, unrefrigerated, in a sea of viscous
Fact #1: Fresh mozzarella made from unpasteurised buffalo milk does not belong in the refrigerator. It is best kept at room temperature and optimally should be eaten within two days of production.
While I stood there, the clerk scooped cheese baseballs into plastic bags filled with 'keeping water', packaged the way pet stores sell goldfish.
I asked for two medium-size mozzarellas, then drove down the road, parked by a cherry orchard, leaned out the window and punctured the bag, spurting liquid onto the side of the car. With the cheese slithering in my hands, I took a bite, breaking through the thin, shiny rind into dissolving layers of musky tasting paradise, juice streaming down my chin. It was not a pretty sight but exactly the way fresh mozzarella should be eaten.
Fact #2: Caprese salad (mozzarella, tomatoes and basil) is delicious, and leftover cheese is fine for cooking. But when purists get their hands on a lump of fresh buffalo milk mozzarella, any accompaniment is superfluous.
After that, I drove to the town of Caserta with its 1,200-room palace built about 1750 by Charles VII of Bourbon, then ruler of the Kingdom of Naples. He was succeeded by his son, Ferdinand IV, a monarch who had the soul of a peasant, ate macaroni with his fingers and started a buffalo-breeding farm outside Caserta. The town is now part of the unbroken urban sprawl that coats the coastal plain north of Mount Vesuvius, virtually a suburb of Naples, known for crime, litter, poverty, corruption and occasional earthquakes. On the upside, the greater Neapolitan area has Pompeii, Herculaneum, the Bay of Naples and mozzarella-topped pizza Margherita, invented by a local pizza chef for the 1889 visit of Italian Queen Margherita.
I stopped in Caserta because, together with Salerno about 50 miles south, it is a mozzarella production centre, home of a consortium founded in 1981 to protect and promote bona-fide, officially regulated mozzarella 'di bufala' Campania.
Fact #3: Signs for dairy outlets along the highways in the Naples area are common. Some sell excellent mozzarella. If you always want the real thing, look for caseificios bearing the Denominazione d'Origine Protetta, or DOP seal, a European Union certification that guarantees top-quality Campania mozzarella.
The mozzarella consortium headquarters is where I met president Luigi Chianese, vice-president Domenico Raimondo and agronomist Gennaro Testa, who described the challenges faced by the 130-member organisation, including the need to distinguish mozzarella made with pasteurised cow's milk from mozzarella di bufala Campania. In 1996, the European Union granted buffalo milk mozzarella from Campania DOP status, distinguishing it from imitations.
Fact #4: In 2008, 32,000 tonnes of DOP mozzarella were produced in Campania, but just 16 per cent was exported to France, Germany, Japan, the US and other countries. The very finest DOP cheese never leaves the region because it is made from unpasteurised milk and has a shelf life of only a few days. The consortium monitors cheese production to meet DOP standards. But last year health officials found elevated levels of dioxin in samples of mozzarella.
Chianese said EU monitors discovered low levels of contamination in milk from about 20 of the 2,000-odd buffalo dairies in Campania.
'Not one bocconcino (a miniature mozzarella ball) of DOP cheese was found to have dioxin,' he said. Later, Testa took me to Caseificio Farina in suburban Caserta. We split a ball of mozzarella while he explained the subtle difference between slightly salty, densely textured Caserta-style cheese and the softer, runnier, almost sweet-tasting Salerno product.
Fact #5: It's easy to spot the difference between handmade mozzarella and machine-produced cheese. Each artisanal ball has a Y-shaped flap marking the place where it was seamed by the cheese maker, or 'casaro'. Together with fresh seafood - scampi and calamari - mozzarella and artichokes are featured in local restaurants where the cuisine of Campania is about as good as it gets. And if you can't find a life-transforming pizza Margherita in the area, you probably ought to give up eating.
In the summer, sightseers visit the nearby ruins of Paestum, a Greek colony founded around 600 BC featuring three majestic Doric-columned temples.
But my objective was the 500-acre Tenuta Vannulo near the town of Capaccio Scalo. That's where Antonio Palmieri produces perhaps the purest organic mozzarella and ricotta cheese in Campania.
Fact #6: Ricotta cheese is made from a milky mozzarella by-product. Americans use it chiefly for lasagna, but in Italy, ricotta is served for dessert surrounded by honey, orange peel, cinnamon and other condiments. Tenuta Vannulo has 500 buffaloes that feed on pesticide-free grass and grain produced at the farm. Mozzarella, ricotta, yogurt and ice cream are made daily and sold only on the premises because Palmieri thinks pasteurisation affects the quality.
Tenuta Vannulo is a beautiful estate, established in 1907 by Palmieri's grandfather. It's centred on the family's Pompeii-red villa, and its cafe serves rich buffalo milk gelato on brioche pastry with a dollop of whipped cream.
Fact #7: A one-cup serving of the cheese is loaded with protein and has virtually no carbohydrates. Of course, it also has 336 calories, 220 of them from fat. At the picture window-lined dairy, visitors can watch workers add scalding water to honeycombed wedges of fermented buffalo milk and stir with a wooden stick until the goo turns into a shiny mass.
Then warm globules of it are kneaded by two workers while another one pulls off smaller lumps, shapes them into balls and tosses them into a vat.
Fact #8: The name of the cheese comes from the Italian verb 'mozzare', which means to lop or cut. Vannulo buffalo live in a large, open-air stable behind the cafe and shop. It's everything the artisanal dairy is not, with a high-tech buffalo-milking system that recognises computer chips embedded in the animals' collars for collecting health and production data.
Fact #9: In the old days, milkers tied the animals' hind legs so they couldn't wander and convinced them to give milk by keeping newborns close at hand. In the Vannulo stable, buffaloes ambled into the milking chambers where they were hooked up to fully automated milking hoses. The creatures don't seem to mind and never find out that their milk becomes the manna from heaven that is mozzarella cheese.
Fact #10: Eating the cheese promotes intelligence and good looks. OK, that hasn't been proved. But it makes people happy. I know that for a fact. -- LAT-WP