Hero Image

Go Ahead, Milk My Day

The New York Times
The New York Times

Buffalo mozzarella is the Great White Whale of American cheesemaking: a dream so exotic and powerful that it drives otherwise sensible people into ruinous monomaniacal quests. Despite all the recent triumphs of our country’s foodie movement (heirloom-turkey-sausage saffron Popsicles; cardamom paprika mayonnaise foam), no one in the United States has, as of yet, figured out how to recreate precisely this relatively simple Old World delicacy — a food with essentially one ingredient (buffalo milk) that is made every day in Italy. Over the last 15 years, in fact, the attempt to make authentic buffalo mozzarella — to nail both its taste and texture — has destroyed businesses from Vermont to Los Angeles. It seems truly doomed. “A Polar wind blows through it,” Melville might have written about it, if he had been a food writer, “and birds of prey hover over it.”


At the risk of straining the analogy, you could call me the Ishmael of this quest.


I do not, normally, have foodie tendencies. I grew up loving tuna casserole covered in potato chips, and roughly two-thirds of my body weight is ketchup. I have never tasted caviar or foie gras. And yet something about buffalo mozzarella calls to me. Ever since I discovered the cheese’s existence, sometime in my 20s, I’ve thought about it, and eaten it, probably more than is good for me. It’s one of the only foods that I’ll order, automatically, whenever I see it on a menu. Once, years ago, apropos of nothing, I made my family take a road trip to visit a buffalo dairy in Vermont — a dairy whose insanely expensive buffalo-milk yogurt I was spending a large portion of my tiny income on. That dairy, inevitably, went out of business several years later, which saved me plenty of money but caused me an equal amount of emotional pain.

If this seems like a lot of hubbub over an obscure variant of a readily available cheese, it is not. Fresh mozzarella di bufala is one of the miracles of Italian cuisine. It’s exactly like regular mozzarella except that it’s made with milk squeezed out of a buffalo — which is a little like saying that the Hope diamond is exactly like a plastic replica of the Hope diamond except that it’s made out of priceless crystallized carbon. Buffalo milk has roughly twice the fat of cow milk, which makes it decadently creamy and flavorful. The good stuff is almost unrealistically soft — it seems like the reason the word “mouthfeel” was invented — with a depth of flavor that makes even the freshest hand-pulled artisanal cow-milk mozzarella taste like glorified string cheese. Buffalo mozzarella is the apotheosis of dairy: the golden mean between yogurt and custard and cottage cheese and heavy cream and ricotta. It lives (along with clouds and mercury and lava and photons and quicksand) on the mystical border between solid and liquid. Descriptions of it tend toward poetry. “When cut,” the cheesemonger Steven Jenkins has written, “it will weep its own whey with a sweet, beckoning, lactic aroma.”

Why, then, is it so impossible to get truly fresh buffalo mozzarella in the United States? Well, there are all kinds of reasons.

Consider, first off, the conditions in Italy, which are basically perfect. Water buffalo have lived in the hills around Naples for around 1,000 years. (To be clear: these are not the big, brown, wild, hairy bison of the American prairies; they’re the smooth, dark, curly-horned beasts you might expect to see in a documentary about rice farming in China.) One Italian cheesemaker told me that the animals first came to Italy when Hannibal used them to carry his war treasure back from Asia — a story that is historically dubious but does manage to capture the cheese’s almost mythic exoticism. After so many centuries of practice, modern Italians have buffalo dairying down to a science: animal genetics, human expertise, farming infrastructure — it’s all in place and perfectly integrated. If you walk into a shop in Naples and ask for mozzarella, you will get a ball of buffalo milk that probably congealed only hours before. (For the vastly inferior cow’s-milk version — the default in American stores — you have to ask by a whole different name: fior di latte.)

Italy is a quintessentially Old World country — a quilt of microregions, each fiercely loyal to its own traditions and cuisines — which means that it’s perfectly natural to expect your cheese to have been made locally that day. This expectation has been woven so deeply into the fabric of daily life, by so many generations of cheese eaters, that the market for it is guaranteed. And Italy is small enough that, if you do move a fresh product from one major city to the next, it takes only a couple of hours.

The conditions in the United States are the opposite of that. Our water-buffalo herds are sparse and, for the purposes of dairying, practically feral. They’re difficult to acquire and expensive to raise. They produce only a fraction of the milk you get from a typical dairy cow, and they are so psychologically fragile that it’s hard to even get that much out of them.

Once you do get milk, it’s hard to know exactly what to do with it. The Old World secrets of mozzarella production have mostly stayed in the Old World; I’ve yet to eat a ball of the domestically produced stuff that even begins to compare. (It tends to be rubbery, like a giant white pencil eraser.)

Then there’s the problem of distribution. Our country is huge: essentially 31 Italys glued together. Our food system, accordingly, is organized around supermarkets, which favor processed foods with long shelf lives, not fragile cheeses intended to be eaten within hours of their making. Many Americans don’t even know that buffalo mozzarella is a thing: we’ve developed a taste for hard little vacuum-packed balls of nearly flavorless cow’s milk that we can melt easily over pizza.

All of which combines to make the economics of water-buffalo dairying in the United States totally brutal.

Of course, Ahab, rather famously, didn’t stop sailing just because Moby-Dick was hard to find. If anything, that made him only more obsessive.

Enter Craig Ramini, the latest American adventurer hellbent on making fresh buffalo mozzarella — one of the very few people in the United States currently brave or foolish enough to do so.

In August, very early one morning, I drove out to Ramini’s farm, 60 miles north of San Francisco, in the tiny coastal town of Tomales. (He rents a 25-acre corner of a larger ranch, a hill or two away from the Pacific Ocean, that has been in the same family for generations.) I drove between rows of eucalyptus trees weeping mist, and although I had come to see the buffalo, I was still surprised when I saw them — after miles and miles of cows, they looked like prehistoric beasts lost in the fog.

Ramini is tall and slim, a former college shortstop; he wore khaki cargo pants and a white Ralph Lauren shirt. He’s relatively new to the world of cheese, and his road there was unorthodox. He spent most of the last decade working in Silicon Valley, where his specialty was hooking up hot young programmers with the big corporations that needed their digital services. In the summer of 2009, however, at age 51, Ramini had an epiphany. He decided he wanted to change his life, and he proceeded to do so in a very Silicon Valley way: he stuck Post-it notes all over one wall of his house to form (as he put it) “a Mind Map of happiness and fulfillment.” Three clusters of Post-its emerged: large animals, entrepreneurship and Italian food. (Ramini’s grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, owned an Italian restaurant that Ramini spent a lot of time in as a child.) Buffalo mozzarella, Ramini realized, was a hole in the market that happened to lie right at the intersection of his happiness clusters. Although he was not, at the time, a great fan of cheese, and he had never interacted with a water buffalo, he decided that this was his new calling. He leapt into the project as if he were developing an app. It became clear to him almost immediately, however, that Northern California was not Italy and that buffalo mozzarella wasn’t going to behave like a dot-com start-up. Ramini has spent three years getting over the most basic hurdles: assembling enough animals (he has a herd of 44) and coaxing milk out of them (he had to redesign his barn and stalls, and he’s still taking in only 60 gallons of milk a week — about a ninth of his goal) — and beginning the daunting process of turning that milk into perfectly formed cheese. There have been some disastrous moments and plenty of sleepless nights. The first few months’ worth of batches weren’t even close to being viable. So he hired two Italian cheese consultants to help guide him. Although he says the product is improving, he still hasn’t been able to get it right. When I visited him, he had yet to sell a single ball of mozzarella.

At his farm, Ramini helped me into tall rubber boots, guided me through an antiseptic boot wash and then welcomed me into his cheese factory. The word “factory,” in this case, is probably a little grand: there were only two tiny rooms — 250 square feet altogether — with a concrete floor, stainless-steel tables and white-tile walls. (“A lot of what I’m doing,” Ramini said, “is trying to be clever with limited space.”) It felt like a cross between a restaurant kitchen, a science lab, an operating room and a prison cell. Ramini and I stayed in that space, just the two of us, with only a few short breaks, for the next 11 hours.

Buffalo milk is about 80 percent water, and turning it into cheese involves getting rid of most of that. The cheesemaking day turns out to operate on a similar ratio: 80 percent idle time, 20 percent action. You note a temperature or sprinkle some bacterial powder, then sit around for 90 minutes, then note another temperature, then sit around again. Ramini and I endured long stretches of silence. Sometimes it felt as if we were in an avant-garde play. We stared out the window to watch a pair of Black Angus calves trying to nurse from a Holstein mother. Meanwhile, Ramini’s small batch of precious milk, collected painstakingly over the previous three days, heated and cooled and churned and curdled and drained its whey in a stainless-steel vat.

Between the silences, Ramini told me things: facts, biography, business plans, dreams. Buffalo semen, he said, arrives from Italy in a container of liquid nitrogen that looks like R2-D2. A buffalo cervix comprises three concentric rings. Buffaloes don’t moo; they bark like seals. At some point Ramini gave me a cup of fresh buffalo milk, which was pleasantly rich and coated the inside of my mouth. We drank coffee with buffalo milk in it and exchanged stories about Larry Bird. Ramini grew up “a country-club kid” from Massachusetts, the son of a doctor who had courtside seats during the Celtics’ glory days. After a few hours, I found myself fluent in the esoterica of cheese: agitators, stretch testing, pH windows, rennet, airspace probes. Eventually, the fog burned off, exposing a layer of blue that had apparently been there all along.

That day, Ramini was tweaking his recipe — more starter culture, lower temperatures — in hopes that his final product would be a little more tender. “The elusive thing,” he said, “is softness.”

There’s a metaphor there, perhaps.

Ramini admits to having the classic Silicon Valley personality — Type A, obsessive, self-promoting — and this has not always gone over well with the laid-back, lower-profile, communally spirited artisanal cheesemakers in the Bay Area. Ramini is media-savvy and has somehow managed to generate national attention before producing any first-rate cheese. (“That’s catchy,” he said about my Great White Whale theory of buffalo mozzarella. “I wish I had thought of that myself. I’d have been using it for over a year now.”) He seems to see many of his artisanal-cheese-world competitors as financially naïve, given the fact that, despite all their high principles and fellow-feeling, they can’t afford to quit their day jobs because they manage to give away so many of their profits to middlemen. Ramini’s goals are more ambitious: to fill his 79-gallon vat with buffalo milk every single day, turn it into perfect mozzarella and sell it directly to restaurants and consumers, with no middlemen, for $35 a pound — a plan that he calculates would yield around $1.5 million a year and set him up for the rest of his life.

“I haven’t met a cheesemaker yet who says, ‘That’s a brilliant idea,’ ” Ramini told me. “Tuning out part of the community was not in my business plan. It’s an unforeseen challenge.”

When the fog finally rolled back in, around 6 p.m., Ramini had turned his batch of milk into 30 wet white bricks of mozzarella curd — the raw material of one of the most elusive cheeses on earth.

He crumbled one of the brick’s edges into rough little chunks, over which he poured hot water. The first batch didn’t act right — the chunks wouldn’t cohere — so Ramini waited 20 minutes and tried again. It didn’t work. He waited 20 more minutes, then 20 more. On the fifth try, the curds did exactly what he wanted them to: they fused together and got stretchy and soft, and Ramini squeezed them into a smooth, pure white ball that looked like the real Italian thing. He sliced it. We tried it. It tasted good, like the milk, but it was rubbery, squeaky against our teeth — very much not Italian. The elusive softness eluded him still.

Ramini says texture is the final hurdle, and while he’s confident that he will get over it eventually, he has little idea when that’s going to happen or who’s going to help him or where that person might be. He’s planning a trip to Italy, with a local chef, in hopes that someone there might give him the answer.

After my trip to Ramini’s farm, I spoke with Raffaele Mascolo, a cheese consultant who is originally from Naples but now lives in Wisconsin. Mascolo was one of the Italian experts who worked, for a couple of weeks, with Ramini. Together they managed to produce, Mascolo told me, “decent” mozzarella. He praised Ramini’s intelligence and passion but said that, in spite of those qualities, it could still take him a lot of time — another year or two, maybe — to produce consistently high-quality mozzarella. It’s not the world’s most difficult cheese, Mascolo said, but it’s also not something you can rush.

We were talking via Skype, and Mascolo left the screen for a minute. He came back with a handful of cheeses he had made — caciocavallo and caciotta — to show me. At one point he popped a small ball of mozzarella (made in Minnesota out of a blend of cow and goat cheese) into his mouth and actually exclaimed, “Mamma mia!” He showed me a wooden statue of a water buffalo that he keeps in his home. “This is my God,” he said.

I recognized, I thought, a familiar glint in his eye, and sure enough, toward the end of our conversation, Mascolo told me that he was thinking about getting into the buffalo-mozzarella business. When I asked him for details, he was mysterious, but the look was still there, as was the surge of hope in my heart. As Melville the food writer might have put it: “Such is the endlessness, yea, the intolerableness of all earthly effort.”

By Sam Anderson