Spend even a short amount of time in Italy, and you’ll inevitably hear the words: mozzarella di bufala. Maybe you’ll think, “Mozzarella what?” Or maybe you’re making a trip to Italy already prepared to eat some of Italy’s most famous cheese. Word about buffalo mozzarella has certainly traveled far outside the Italic Peninsula, but there’s still no place like its home to eat it. Stick a fork into the tender white ball and watch the juices stream out; slide in the knife and its fresh, milky smell will wake up your taste buds. Then take a bite. Delicate, rich, sometimes sharp, mozzarella di bufala always pleases and then some.
There’s no doubt about it, buffalo mozzarella deserves its spot as Italy’s favourite cheese. Besides its deliciousness, it’s also endowed with versatility in how you eat it. But before you dig in (or probably after!) you might have a few questions about this ubiquitous cheese. After all, it’s quite similar to its toned-down cousin, good old mozzarella, known in Italy as fior di latte. You might be wondering, what kind of animal does it come from anyway? How is it made? What should you look out for when buying your perfect ball of cheese? And most importantly, how should you eat it once you have it?
You wouldn’t be alone if you pictured an Italian milking a buffalo—the enormous, brown type that once roamed the USA. But you would be wrong. The milk for mozzarella di bufala comes from water buffalo—the type that wallows in water and is usually found in Asia. But what are water buffalo doing in Italy anyway? There is a little disagreement in this department. Water buffalo either came hundreds of years ago on boats from Egypt into Sicily or were brought south by invading Goths. However or whichever way they came here, they’ve stuck around!
How is mozzarella di bufala made?
Though water buffalos have roamed southern Italy for centuries, their milk wasn’t made into cheese until the 18th century. Water buffalo milk is much more fatty and rich than the milk of dairy cows, which means it’s ideal for making cheese (and indigestible to drink). After the beasts are milked, their unpasteurized milk is left to ferment for three hours, chopped into pieces, then covered with boiling water. Long strings of cheesy substance grow into a massive mozzarella ball. From this mother ball, baby mozzarella balls are formed, and sometimes it’s shaped into braids. The balls are left to soak in salt water, then are returned to their whey—the liquid you find the mozzarella soaking in when you buy it.
How do you buy buffalo mozzarella?
The best answer is, the very day it’s made. Since buffalo mozzarella is made from unpasteurized milk, its shelf-life is only four to five days. The real die-hard mozzarella eaters will go in the late morning to the farm where their favourite buffalo mozzarella is produced. These farms are clustered in the region surrounding Naples called Campania. If you don’t live in the Campania you might have a hard time getting to the farm. Lucky for you, there’s a very dedicated network that brings mozzarella to the people every single day. Even in Rome you can find vendors that sell mozzarella brought from Campania that very morning (try Volpetti in Testaccio, visit Lina and Enzo at Testaccio Market (and tell them we sent you!) or Antica Caciara in Trastevere – oh and you can always try some with us on tour!)
Another way to get mozzarella di bufala is to request some from a friend venturing to the south—or head to the south yourself. While this seems to impose, most likely she’ll be stopping by a farm to pick some up anyway. And if you’re going, you’ll definitely be plagued by the same requests from friends.
How do you eat it?
Now that you have some mozzarella di bufala in your kitchen, how do you eat it? First of all, you should eat it right away! Remove the ball from the liquid it comes in—but don’t throw that away if you don’t think you’re going to finish every last piece. The liquid, or whey, is vital to keeping the mozzarella as fresh as it can be. And where buffalo mozzarella is involved, you don’t want to skimp on freshness.
It’s best to eat mozzarella di bufala in the raw. Put the small balls (bocconcini) on a salad, or slice up a big braid and layer it with vine-ripe tomatoes and fresh basil for a wonderful summer meal of insalata caprese. Drizzle some olive oil over it, rest it on a bed of rughetta (rocket), toss chunks of it with cherry tomatoes, or put slices between two pieces of bread then fry it (this is called a mozzarella in carrozza). Dig in! And surely “Mmmm . . .” will echo around the table.
Note: If you’re not going to eat your mozzarella right away (though how can you resist such tastiness just sitting around?) don’t put it in the fridge. Though that might seem counterintuitive, the cold can change the taste and consistency of your milky ball of goodness.