Where are all the buffalo in Italy?
Making the most of buffalo mozzarella.
The industry is about 900 years old, Italians eat it daily and chefs say it's best consumed with nothing but a knife and fork – it also makes lots of money, says Rebecca Rose.

Have you ever wondered, while enjoying a Caprese salad of tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella, whether these porcelain-white delights really hail from the udders of dirty horned creatures that wade in foetid marshlands? And, if so, where exactly are all the buffalo in Italy?

Although it may be hard to square the cheese with the beast, the buffalo mozzarella industry is about 900 years old. Buffalo have been populating the once-waterlogged regions south of Rome (Lazio, Caserta) and south of Naples (Campania) since the 6th century. With their large hooves, these strong animals were used to plough muddy southern-Italian terrain for centuries, but the first record of mozzarella was found in the writings of 12th-century monks, as a by-product of that more durable cheese provola. The name "mozzarella", however, stemming from the word "mozza" – the manual "breaking off" process that shapes the cheese – didn't emerge until its appearance in a 1570 cookery book from the papal court. Because of its short lifespan, Mozzarella di Bufala was initially unsuitable for trading and to begin with the cheese was enjoyed only in select circles until the dawn of the railway age. Today, far from being a papal privilege, it is an important export for Italy and an international gourmet staple – so much so that buffalo mozzarella farms have sprung up across the globe from Fife to Vermont. For the people of Naples and surrounding Campania however, locally made mozzarella (mainly buffalo, but sometimes the cow variety known as fior di latte) is an essential part of their daily diet. It is eaten on pasta, stuffed inside zucchini flowers, included in every type of salad and in that proud Neapolitan creation – pizza.

These days, buffalo mozzarella is a draw for visitors to the Neapolitan riviera. Franco Luise, head chef at the newly reopened Hotel Caruso, in Ravello on the Amalfi coast, has sourced a wide selection of mozzarella varieties for the restaurant's menu. All are produced locally and range from the small, almost bite-size balls known as bocconcini, to the heftier 500 gramme Aversana, to Treccia – a smooth, plaited variation from nearby Sorrento. Luise says: "When you are using mozzarella on pasta, always put it on at the very last minute – otherwise it will go stringy." (Forget the idea that stringy cheese on pizza means it's the real thing.) "And, never ever put it in the fridge! It must remain at room temperature, otherwise it will toughen." It must also be kept in its salty acqua bianca (white water) until the moment it is served. In the kitchens at the Caruso, Luise demonstrates a few easy mozzarella creations: a salad of grilled vegetables with slivers of a smoked variety of the cheese on top, flash-grilled; a wedge of juicy mozzarella wrapped up with local lemon leaves and grilled until oozing point; a classic melanzane parmiggiana – a baked dish of thinly sliced grilled aubergine layered with chopped mozzarella, basil and parmesan. "But the real way to eat buffalo mozzarella," he confides with a conspiratorial smile, "is with a fork and a knife. No salt, no pepper, no oil – no nothing."

In Capaccio, just south of the Amalfi coast, organic producers of buffalo mozzarella Vannulo are doing a roaring trade. It is a Saturday morning in July, and instead of securing their sun-loungers at the beach, the locals are queueing up in the heat outside Vannulo's legendary farm shop to buy fresh cheese. Vannulo's is considered the best mozzarella in the region, made entirely from buffalo milk with no addition of cow's milk (unlike most), and all the more sought after for not being sold anywhere else. By midday, the 400kg of mozzarella made in the wee hours that morning will have sold out. But the cars and coachloads will keep arriving to enjoy the creamy by-products served at the coffee shop: a brioche made with buffalo butter, a bowl of buffalo-milk yoghurt served with kumquat jam, or a scoop of delicious buffalo ice-cream – voted by the legendary gourmet guide, Gambero Rosso, as one of Italy's top 200 ice-creams.

It is not just the customers who are happy – the 550 Vannulo buffalo are a contented bunch too. In fact, they may be the luckiest buffalo in Italy: they roam and feed in 200 hectares of organic land, they are homeopathically treated, and their accommodation is more like an animal spa than a farm. Here, the buffalo have regular showers to cool off, the use of a large rotating brush to rub up against, and rubber mattresses to sleep on. Despite their horny, lumbering appearance, these animals are intelligent and polite, forming orderly queues for showers and electronic milking. "It's like Switzerland!" says Francesco Marino, Vannulo's financial controller and our tour guide.

There are only four male buffalo, and they arguably have the best deal, being responsible for impregnating 300 nubile females. Mating only takes place once a year for the female however, and pregnancy takes care of the other months, lasting an impressive 310 days. Buffalo eat more than cows yet produce less milk, but the fat content of buffalo milk is higher (9 per cent as opposed to 3.5 per cent) and it is richer in enzymes and proteins, making a richer tastier cheese. Vannulo's mozzarella is made from unpasteurised milk, or latte crudo, so it is essential the animals are kept clean to avoid infection, so their udders are always washed manually.

The mozzarella-making process takes only five hours from start to finish, but it is a highly skilled job requiring considerable manual dexterity. The animals are milked at 3pm and 4am every day, and rennet is added to the fresh buffalo milk to encourage the acidification process. This turns the milk into curd, which is then shredded, immersed in boiling hot water and kneaded until it forms a thin smooth skin, ready to be scooped up by a pair of cheese-makers. It is strenuous work requiring strong hands, so mozzarella-makers are usually men.

As Marino explains, proper buffalo mozzarella should be snowy-white and firm. On biting into it, the appearance on the inside should be layered, and pearls of milky whey should appear immediately. It should smell of milky enzymes and taste mild and fresh, with a juicy, almost squeaky consistency. It should ideally be eaten about 10 hours after it is made, but it can be eaten up to two days afterwards, but after that – forget it.

The Vannulo farm, owned by the distinguished Antonio Palmieri, has been producing buffalo milk since 1907, but only started making mozzarella in 1988. Despite the fact they sell out daily, Palmieri has no plans to expand or export and is more concerned with maintaining their famously high standards. With an example such as Vannulo, with its fast turnover and high profit margin, it is no wonder people around the world are encouraged to set up mozzarella businesses. As we leave the cheese-makers and walk round to the front of the farm and the disorderly queue of punters, Francesco sums up why the business is a winning formula: "Milk in the morning, money in the evening," he says with a smile.