Although the water buffalo (also known as the Asian buffalo) originated in Southeast Asia, it has made a name for itself in regard to Italian cheese. How, exactly, the animals got to Europe is unclear, but they’ve roamed Italy since at least the 15th century. Today, the population is sizable enough to allow large-scale production of mozzarella di bufala and smaller batches of modern cheeses.
Water buffalo are classified into two subspecies: river buffalo and swamp buffalo. River buffalo compose over 70 percent of the global water buffalo population, first popping up around 2500 B.C. in India and 1000 B.C. in Mesopotamia. They yield more milk than their swamp brethren; swamp buffalo are typically used to work the land rather than for dairying.
In North America, water buffalo are still fairly rare—the species wasn’t imported until the 1970s—with recent estimates placing US population at around eight thousand animals.
Appearance and Personality
With horns spreading up to five feet wide and fanned-out hooves suited for muddy waters, the eight-foot-long, dark-haired water buffalo makes quite an entrance. “[They’re] inquisitive, clever, and stubborn,” says Andrew Zlot of Double 8 Dairy in West Petaluma, Calif. “You can’t scare them into submission.”
Zlot currently maintains a herd of 115 and hopes to grow that to establish one of the largest water buffalo milking herds in the country. Though they can be bull-headed, Zlot notes that, with encouragement, water buffalo are capable of learning new behavioral patterns.
Milk and Cheese
While Italy dominates the buffalo mozzarella market, packaging and shipping costs remain high, and the cheese is already several days old once it hits American shelves. In an effort to bring a fresher product to customers, a number of domestic dairies and cheesemakers are trying their hand at the art.
“This has been a very interesting, very educational, but rocky experience,” says Bob Wills, owner of Wisconsin-based Cedar Grove Cheese. While importing water buffalo cheeses may be “substantially cheaper” than crafting wheels in the United States, Wills says, the gems that emerge from the make process are worth the effort. Case in point: Weird Sisters, a unique Alpine style made from a blend of cow’s and buffalo’s milk.
Though water buffalo yield less milk than dairy cattle, what they do produce boasts higher milk solids and, therefore, richer flavor. Zlot takes advantage of the high butterfat content by crafting gelato in addition to milk and cheese. Elliot Angeloni, operations manager at Calabro Cheese in East Haven, Conn., explains that the process for making cheese from water buffalo milk is practically the same as for cow’s milk; however, it requires roughly double the time. “Everything has to be very precise— pH, acidity, timing,” Angeloni says.
The finished cheeses (Calabro crafts both Mozzarella di Bufala and Ricotta di Bufala) tend to have a richer flavor, spongier texture, and whiter coloring. “Mozzarella di Bufala has a sweet sourness to it,” Angeloni says. “It’s soft and almost melts in your mouth. All the flavors just rush right out.”