Bufala bliss


POSTED: Sunday, August 09, 2009

I recently visited the Campania region of Italy, just south of Naples (proud home of the margherita pizza), where, most cheese lovers agree, the best mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella) is produced. As the name suggests, the mild, springy white cheese is produced from the milk of the water buffalo. While there are numerous buffalo dairies in the region, I chose to visit the Tenuta Vannulo dairy—partly for its stellar reputation as one of the best, and also because it is certified by the Italian Association for Organic Farming.

When we pulled into the long gravel driveway, I had envisioned a grazing herd of the enormous, shaggy American buffalo often captured in Western paintings. I was surprised to see, though still looming, rather svelte animals akin to the water buffalo of India.


The Vannulo dairy boasts a state-of-the-art milking facility situated on 500 acres, much of which is classic pastoral landscape. Our guide explained the importance of developing a symbiotic relationship between the animals and the bucolic environment in which they reside as key for the production of good-quality milk—basically, a happy buffalo produces a better product. Because each buffalo has a unique inner rhythm, she is allowed to decide when she wants to be milked. When she's ready, on her own volition, she enters an automated station where a milking machine reads a microchip containing her statistics, such as weight and udder specifications, and then the machine adjusts accordingly. Amazed with this process and the idea of buffalo creating their own schedule according to their needs, I watched as several waited patiently in line, while one (either in urgent need of a milking, or just a buffalo bully) cut in front of the others. In the well-ventilated and meticulously clean facility, the buffalo sauntered about with dignity, seemingly socializing while taking turns rubbing up against mechanical brushes (think carwash) or snoozing on comfortable-looking rubber-coated mattresses.

While the milking of the buffalo is automated, the actual cheese making is not. Cheese makers begin by heating the milk until it coagulates to form curds. After draining the whey, the remaining curd is ground to a crumbly texture, which is then collected and transferred to large tubs of hot water. In these enormous tubs, the curd is stirred with large paddles until it becomes flexible, then it is hand-stretched and kneaded until it acquires the desired smooth, silky consistency of mozzarella cheese. The cheese is then hand-formed into balls, snipped and soaked in cold water so it'll retain its shape, and then left to float in the brine in which it is typically packaged. The whole process, buffalo milk to cheese, takes about five hours.





        It's a good idea to call ahead to arrange a tour, keeping in mind that there is a 12-hour time difference between Hawaii and Italy. For information and stunning visuals, visit http://www.vannulo.it.

» Getting there: The best way to get to the Campania region of Italy is to fly directly to Naples' Capodichino Airport. The Tenuta Vannulo dairy is only about 45 minutes from Naples, or a bit longer depending on your choice of transportation. The most direct and expedient method is to rent a car, or hire a car and driver from the airport. By train, hop on a shuttle bus from the airport to the Naples Central Station, then board a train bound for the Paestum Station in Capaccio Scalo; taxis are available for hire from Paestum Station. Lastly, one can make the trip by bus. There are regular streams of buses headed to the Capaccio Scalo area, but they tend to travel slowest due to many scheduled stops.


» Address: Via G. Galilei (Contrada Vannulo) 84047 Capaccio Scalo (SA) Italia


» Phone: 011-39-828-724765




Following the tour of the facilities, we were treated to a much-anticipated tasting session of the dairy's buffalo milk products. The first course consisted of Caprese salad: bocconcini (small balls of buffalo mozzarella, which translated means small mouthfuls) with garden tomatoes and basil, lightly dressed with olive oil, ground sea salt and pepper. Fresh (meaning hours-old) buffalo mozzarella has a thin, lustrous coating and, when cut, oozes small droplets of whey. The taste: rich and creamy with a hint of sweet alfalfa. I had four large helpings and relished the fresh-baked bread to sop up the drippings. My overindulgence compromised the second course: buffalo ricotta cheese, sprinkled with finely ground espresso, which after sampling left even less room for the creamy banana buffalo yogurt that followed, and only a tiny space for the final course of buffalo hazelnut ice cream. I skipped the offer of a frothy buffalo cappuccino and instead sought out the shade of an olive tree where I relaxed in full bufala bliss.

Where to sample: If time doesn't allow travel to the Campania region of Italy, you can satisfy your buffalo cheese craving at Whole Foods Market at Kahala where they receive shipments every week or so of Mozzarella di Bufala by Pomella. While not as fresh as buying from the source, it's authentic, traditional mozzarella made from pure water buffalo milk.