The Unsung Hero of the Cheese World Might Be an Animal You Didn't Know Existed

All hail the water buffalo

You’ve likely tasted Mozzarella di Bufala, that gorgeous Italian mozzarella practically weeping its own milk. It's so creamy, and so delicious that you often need only serve it with a little olive oil and sea salt. But did you realize that you were in fact eating cheese produced from water buffalo’s milk? It’s their milk and its higher protein, fat and mineral content that gives buffalo mozzarella its trademark creaminess and mild, sweet, almost grassy flavor profile. Although their milk is responsible for producing one of the great delicacies of the food world, the majestic water buffalo rarely gets its due.

A Distinctly Italian Tradition

Perhaps part of their mystique is their majestic size, almost prehistoric appearance, and somewhat foreboding curved horns. Adding to their allure was the notion that they had finicky personalities and were notoriously difficult to milk.

Maybe that’s why, until recently, buffalo cheese-making has largely been an Italian industry. With their long history of raising water buffalo, generations of Italian cheese makers have passed on their knowledge – the subtleties and challenges of raising and milking water buffalo – not to mention the art form and tradition of manipulating it into those coveted creamy balls of cheese.

A shining example of this Italian tradition and expertise is Caseificio Quattro Portoni, helmed by brothers Bruno and Alfio Gritti.  They had the advantage of growing up on their father’s cow dairy farm in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, but in 2000 they decided to try something new and purchased 40 water buffalo from a neighboring farmer. Their first order of business was getting to know the beast.

Bruno Gritti explains, “The buffalo is a very rustic and resistant animal, with a mild and gregarious temperament. It loves being in a group – a bit like sheep.  Raising buffalo, it’s important to nurture the natural behavior of the animal, giving it ample space, adequate drinking troughs and easy and abundant access to food.” The same could be said about most humanely raised animals, but in addition, the buffalo’s milking environment must be very relaxed, with minimal disruption and noises. “If a buffalo is afraid or stressed it won’t give milk.  It needs to recognize the people it’s dealing with.”

It’s especially important to make sure the animal is comfortable during the milking process as water buffalo produce less milk than cows – six or seven liters per day, in comparison to cow’s 28 liters. To put that into perspective, it takes one liter of milk to make one 250-gram ball, the agricultural standard for mozzarella di Bufala. But oh what amazing milk it is.

“Buffalo milk always gives a paste which is creamy and translucent in color (the milk doesn’t have carotene) and above all it’s sweet like the cheese is, determined by the concentration of fat.  Buffalo milk is particularly, by its composition, known for its pearly white color and for the sweetness of its taste.”

Buffalo's Milk Cheese=More Than Mozzarella

Mozzarella is arguably the sole reference point when people think of cheese made with buffalo’s milk, but the Gritti brothers are working to expand people’s perception of what buffalo milk cheese can be.  While they make highly sought-after fresh mozzarella and crescenza (also known as Stracchino), the brothers also produce semi-aged and aged varieties. By drawing on traditional recipes and experimenting with the aging process, the brothers have developed over 20 cheeses (plus yogurt) that maintain and accentuate the milk’s sweet and creamy flavor profile. “So often we find ourselves tasting a Blu di Bufala aged 6 months, surprised by its delicate, lingering flavor as opposed to finding it spicy and more aggressive.” Other cheeses available state-side include Casatica di Bufala, a custardy, soft-ripened bloomy cheese, and Quadrello di Bufala, the Gritti brothers' riff on Taleggio, a pungent washed rind cheese that achieves extra levels of funkiness after undergoing additional aging in Murray’s Cheese’s caves.

The Gritti brothers are making something truly special, and while there are strict agricultural laws (particularly ones pertaining to D.O.P. certification), it’s important to note that not all producers are created equal. Just because a company claims to be artisan or organic, doesn’t guarantee that the quality of their cheese and the treatment of their animals measures up. On a recent visit to one such farm near the Amalfi Coast, a food writer friend (who preferred to remain anonymous) reported horrible conditions where the buffalo were crammed together in a stable with a corrugated metal roof with no sun exposure above them and a manure and slop-filled concrete floor beneath their feet. And though it’s typical to separate the babies from their mothers and bottle feed them after a month or so, at this particular farm babies are weaned off their mothers instantly – if they ever get to feed from the mothers at all – and are given non-organic milk, likely not even water buffalo milk; they even have rings shoved in their noses to prevent them from suckling.

Water Buffalo Cheese Around the World

Thankfully, there are producers around the globe who are adopting practices similar to that of the Gritti brothers, where respect for the animal is of utmost importance. Closer to home, in Tomales, California, Audrey Hitchcock has carried on her late husband Craig Ramini’s legacy at Ramini Mozzarella, where they developed their own philosophy and techniques for raising and milking water buffalo.

From the beginning, everything was decided by careful research and observation. “We researched Temple Grandin, who understands the personality of bovine animals and how they need to be treated, how they feel, what works…” They learned that the buffaloes’ horns are extremely important to them and that they don’t like having their heads tied. “Without their horns they’re no longer in command and they don’t have ability to use them to protect themselves,” explained Audrey. They also observed that the buffalo didn’t like having their back to the inside of the barn or facing the wall because their primary concern was what was going on in the barn. They also knew that bovine animals do very well in a handling chute. “They understand that the metal bars are there for protection. They feel safe behind bars.”

As a result of this fastidious research, Craig and a local metal worker came up with a chute design where the animals come in head to toe, with metal bars closely flanking their sides. “This way, they don’t have their heads tied and they can see the interior of the barn, allowing them to feel safe and free.” The buffalo are milked two at a time: first the udders are washed and then milked using mechanical milkers, which allows Audrey to stand back and do the coddling. “We listen to music, they get brushed, get to eat hay – it’s like a party. The most challenging part is to get just two at a time. One of the most dangerous moments is stopping the whole herd from coming in! Eventually they fall into a pattern; mothers and daughters like to be milked together and come in in pairs, following the same pattern as when they were babies.”

The next generation and happiness of the animals has been an important part of the business, and good things happened as a result of that focus. Another incentive for getting the mothers into the milking barn is that they get to see their babies. When you separate the babies and bottle feed them, you have to milk the mothers twice a day, which Audrey and Craig didn’t have time for. Plus, it was too difficult to replicate the protein and butterfat content of the buffalo milk needed to bottle feed the babies and ensure adequate nutrition. So they decided they’d separate the calves on a daily basis (instead of permanently), sacrifice the second milking and let the babies nurse from their mother during the day. In the evenings, the babies are invited into the milking barn to see and play with the mothers. “Since the mother requires the release of oxytocin for milking, coming into the barn to see their baby right next to them makes them relaxed and happy, which results in the release of oxytocin and getting milk.” Once milking is finished, the mother gets released from the corral and picks up her baby.

This unique environment has led to a deep trust between Audrey and her herd of incredibly happy water buffalo, and we all know that happy animals produce a far superior product. In this case, it's the lush buffalo milk that Audrey has learned to manipulate into balls of authentic buffalo mozzarella, which she sells to Bay Area restaurants like Pizzalina, Rosso Rosticceria, San Francisco’s Seven Hills and Scolace, and Farmshop in Larkspur. “Last night I made my best batch ever!” she beamed proudly over the phone. “I want to make burrata and then stracciatella – I have made burrata and know how to do it and it will be incredible when it comes out, but it’s a matter of finding the time.”

So next time you tuck into that pizza or Caprese salad, or when you try an aged variety, raise a glass to the humble, magnificent creature who made it possible.

The Unsung Hero of the Cheese World Might Be an Animal You Didn't Know Existed