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Italian Cheese: Magnificent Mozzarella

From the most famous Parmigiano to the most secluded pecorino, get ready to tour through the mondo magnifico of Italian cheese. We’ll talk about the history, production, and trivia for each cheese, and then tell you what to pair with it at your next festa. So grab a glass of vino and mangiare!

In the 1920s, millions of Italian immigrants passed through Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay. They carried few belongings with them save for the essentials, a few family keepsakes, and an everlasting knowledge of the old world and its culture. Many of these immigrants stayed in New York City after being approved to stay in the country, and those who didn’t only spread a few miles out, populating New Jersey and upstate. However, over the generations, families broke off and blanketed the United States, taking with them vital pieces and practices of Italy and sharing them with their neighbors. Today, it’s nearly impossible not to know someone who’s Italian or to have never tasted Italian food. In part, this is the legacy of the Italian immigrant.

Just as the Italian people immigrated to the United States, so did one of the most versatile and well-known cheeses in Italian cuisine: mozzarella. While it didn’t undergo the often harsh battery of medical inspections and degrading questions, it made its name (dubbed “mutz” by us proud New Yorkers) with the immigrants who carried over their native cheesemaking recipes, later spreading west, north, south, and all over the country. All the same, it’s hard to go a day without seeing anything mozzarella in this country, a fact that should make all Italian-Americans proud. Mozzarella truly is a cheese without borders – the migrant cheese.

It also claims several other epithets; it’s among Italy’s freshest cheeses, it’s one of the easiest to make, and it’s also one of the most versatile – whether it’s melted, eaten fresh, fried, grated, or stuffed. Stateside, the cheese has been Americanized in several ways, be it through snack stick production, the use of cow’s milk as opposed to traditional water buffalo’s, or through its introduction to the world of mass-produced cheese product. Some would call this butchery, while new-age consumers would consider it practicality. For us traditionalists, we just eat what we know – a good ball of homemade buffalo mozzarella, made fresh or not at all.

Photo Credit: adametrnal via Compfight cc

Mozzarella has a moisture content of over 52 percent, which is vital for its squishy texture and succulent juiciness. / Photo Credit: adametrnal via Compfight cc

Mozzarella does not have a definite age since no records exist from when it was first made. However, its origins can be traced back to Naples, and legend has it that it was first produced – by accident like many other cheeses – when a Neapolitan cheesemaker dropped a bucket of fresh cheese curds into a pail of hot water. As he stuck his hands in to try and salvage his mess, he realized that the curds had become stringy and malleable, moving the mass around and stretching it until he emerged with a ball of delicious mozzarella. Thus, the pasta filata method was born, in which cheesemakers stretch and knead the dough-like curds until they form a cheesy mass.

Perhaps the more interesting part of mozzarella’s genesis is the history of the water buffalo – the cheese’s main milk producer. Water buffalo have been used as farm livestock in Asia for over 5,000 years, acting as muscle and dairy animals for all of that time. Descended from the wild Asian water buffalo, which are ferocious, feral creatures, the domesticated water buffalo is, in contrast, one of the most lovable, docile creatures bred today. They often form bonds with their farmers, children, and other animals, and stories tell of several brave water buffalo protecting their humans from packs of wild dogs, fighting them off with their immense size and sharp, curled horns. Records of Italian water buffalo conflict over when the animal was first introduced; some say that it was a pack animal used when Hannibal invaded Rome, while others argue that the Crusaders brought livestock back from the Middle East in 600 CE Indeed, others contend that the animal came with the Normans from Sicily in 1000 CE, having been brought by migrating Arabs before then. Regardless, the water buffalo is a truly ancient animal and the perfect breed for small, family-owned Italian farms, which need both muscle and cooperation in order to stay manageable.

Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, the only DOP-protected variation of mozzarella, captures all of the old-world practices and ingredients in one stretchy, springy masterpiece. This cheese is licensed and protected to the Campania region, encompassing the cities of Naples and Salerno, among others. As it says in the name, this recipe is dependent on buffalo’s milk, which has twice the butterfat content of normal cow’s milk. It also has less cholesterol, making this cheese a more healthful and creamier option than its Americanized cow’s milk counterparts (some crooked Italian cheesemakers have tried to cut their buffalo mutz with cow’s milk and were arrested for it, with good cause).

As with other  milk-producing animals, farmers must milk their water buffalo twice a day, and the product is brought fresh from the animal to the cheesemaker (usually the same person) immediately afterward. From here, the milk is coagulated using a starter culture from the previous day’s whey (although home cheesemakers can get a similar result using a simple acid such as lemon or vinegar) and is sliced multiple times, first into large one- to two-inch pieces, and then again into half-inch pieces after the curd sufficiently “heals.” The name for mozzarella actually derives from the verb mozzare, which means “to cut.” Before the whey is drained off, the entire vat of coagulated milk is heated, giving the cheese its stringy, springy consistency and pulling extra byproduct from the curd. Only after this process can the cheese mass be moved onto a metal table, where it is kneaded and formed into squishy little balls.

According to the Consorzio di Tutela della Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, a rubbery texture is the worst trait the cheese can have; mozzarella is to be soft, where you can tear it apart, sink your teeth through it with ease, and taste the salty moisture ooze out between your teeth. The final stage in production occurs when the finished balls are dunked into a tank of saline solution, although some makers will end with smoke, creating mozzarella affumicata; a stuffing of cream or ricotta, creating burrataor by making bocconcini, little bite-sized mutz balls.

Water buffalo are among the most docile farm animals, often forming profound bonds with their farmers.

Water buffalo are among the most docile farm animals, often forming profound bonds with their farmers.

Unfortunately for importers, mozzarella is a difficult product since the cheese is always fresh and without preservatives. It’s still done, but a good Italian mutz like Casa Madaio will set you back a little. To complicate matters even further, water buffalo herds are few and far between in the United States. Whereas the Italian climate is perfect, water buffalo can only thrive in hilly places like California, and their unhappiness makes them extraordinarily temperamental. American water buffalo produce just a fraction of a cow’s output, meaning that many American mozzarellas have to change milks to survive. Even so, Americans still love this proud son of Italy, so much so that it’s entered the realm of mass production. The average American consumes 11.5 pounds of mozzarella annually, almost half of the 23-pound total cheese average per person. Because of this, lunch boxes and grocery aisles are oft-filled with stringy cheese sticks and bagged grated mutz – and that is perhaps the worst part. This isn’t real mozzarella – not even a shadow of it – and despite the growing numbers, it’s damaging to our good name.

Fortunately, there’s a beacon floating in the harbor, and it comes in the form of several truly dedicated American producers who have learned their craft either by foreign training or by their cheesemaking heritage. In Somerville, Mass., just north of Boston, Lourdes Smith’s shop Fiore di Nonno crafts small batches of mozzarella daily in addition to several mutz products like stracciatella, a creamed version that’s just as stringy as the solid form. In Hoboken, N.J., too, artisans continue to honor the time-worn tradition of mozzarella through their annual Mutzfest, which I’ve had the honor of working. Producers from all over the area come with their best samples, stuffing stomachs and reviving the good name of old Italian mozzarella. And in Tomales, Calif., sixty miles north of San Francisco, cheesemaker and former Silicon Valley executive Craig Ramini is raising his own water buffalo, all in the hopes of making a suitable American equivalent. There’s hope on the horizon, even though Italian mutz will always reign supreme.

Cooking with mozzarella? Give these recipes a shot – although you can use the cheese with pretty much anything, too!

Photo Credit: Featured image by meg’s my name via Compfight cc

Nick D'Errico

Nick D'Errico was raised in an Italian family where he developed an appreciation for good food, a fear of flying bedroom slippers, and a love of cheese. He works as an editorial intern at Culture and currently studies writing and publishing (he wanted to be an engineer, but can't do math). In his spare time, he dons 40 lbs of padding and stands in front of rubber projectiles as a hockey goalie.

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