When cookbook author Domenica Marchetti visited the Cilento coast, she was bowled over by the truly artisanal techniques and production at Tenuta Vannulo, considered Italy's best producer of mozzarella di bufala.
Domenica wrote all about the experience in her latest cookbook "Preserving Italy" , from watching the buffalo get massages to tasting the mozzarella just after it was made. We're very grateful to Domenica and Houghton MIfflin Harcourt for allowing us to share an excerpt with our readers.
Enjoy and make sure to order a copy of "Preserving Italy" as well as the rest of Domenica's fantastic cookbooks.
Text excerpted from PRESERVING ITALY, (c) 2016 by Domenica Marchetti. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
State-of- the-Artisan Mozzarella
I’m standing on a platform overlooking a herd of water buffalo. The animals are in a barn, a cavernous structure that is open on all sides to allow for ventilation. The roof overhead has large open slats designed to let the sun in and draw hot air up and out.
On this mid-July morning, the buffalo appear content. A number of them are lined up at the far end of the barn at a long trough, in anticipation of their morning meal. Others are lounging on large padded rubber mats that are arranged in rows. A few more have queued up to take their turn at either of two massage stations—yes, massage stations. These are mechanical arms outfitted with enormous twirling bristle rollers. One at a time, the buffalo stand at a machine while a roller runs over their back and neck.
Welcome to Tenuta Vannulo, a 500-acre buffalo dairy just north of the famous ruins of Paestum, in Campania. The farm, which has four barns like the one I described, houses 600 (mostly female) water buffalo, half of which are giving milk at any one time. The animals, all raised on organic feed grown and mixed on the property, produce enough milk to make more than 800 pounds of hand-pulled mozzarella every day, plus ricotta, yogurt, and other dairy delicacies.
To say that this place is state-of- the-art is almost an understatement; yet the philosophy behind the operation is simple: “If the animals are well, if they are free of stress, then the milk they give us is high quality,” says Antonio (Tonino) Palmieri, who owns and runs the farm with his wife, Caterina, and their three grown children.
The majority of Italy’s buffalo mozzarella comes from two places: Caserta, north of Naples, and here, farther south, along the Cilento Coast. Buffalo milk, which is higher in butterfat than cow’s milk, produces especially rich mozzarella that is both sweet and tangy. And the buffalo mozzarella at Tenuta Vannulo is some of the best, made from raw organic milk and available only at the farm. In fact, all morning there has been a knot of people trying to get inside the already crowded cheese shop on the property. By 12:30 p.m. the last ball of mozzarella will have been sold.
As we make the rounds, daughter Teresa Palmieri fills me in on the farm’s history, explaining that her great-grandfather bought the land and a few head of buffalo back in 1907. Each generation since has been raised here, in the salmon-colored stucco villa that stands at the front of the property.
“My first memory is of buffalo,” she says. “The morning my sister was born, my father first took me to check on the buffalo; then we went to the hospital to see my sister.”
For years the farm sold the milk from its buffalo to cheese makers in the area. That changed in 1988, when Tonino and Caterina Palmieri opened the dairy and began making mozzarella and ricotta. In 2000 they added yogurt and gelato, followed by buffalo milk pudding in 2002. The most recent addition is crema spalmabile—high-end Nutella-like spreads in hazelnut, gianduja, and pistachio.
Without a doubt, Vannulo’s most impressive feature is the way the farm manages to seamlessly integrate high-tech and artisanal practices. Take the milking process. The buffalo are milked, one at a time, twice a day, by a machine with a mechanical arm. To access the milking machine, a buffalo passes through a turnstile in the barn. She does this at will, when her udder feels full. Thanks to a computer chip the animal wears, the mechanical arm—which has “memorized” the shape of each buffalo’s udder—attaches itself to her and milks her. If, however, the buffalo has already given her daily allotment, the machine will divert her through another turnstile, back into the barn.
When it comes to breeding, however, the operation is decidedly old-school. Instead of high-tech artificial insemination, the farm relies on eight bulls, two in each barn.
All of the buffalo have names and profiles, kept on the computer. Everything about them is known—their age, their weight, their parentage, their medical history; how many times they’ve given birth, whether they are pregnant now and if so, when they’re due; when they last gave milk, how much they gave, what their weekly average is, what their lifetime average is, and—if you can believe it—how much milk each teat produces.
“All of this information is important; it informs everything we do here,” Teresa Palmieri says.
Inside the white tile and stainless steel dairy, the mozzarella at Vannulo is still pulled by hand, the process visible through a large picture window. Six cheese makers in white pants, white T-shirts, and white baseball caps tackle stainless steel tubs filled with large wobbly blocks of curd. Working in pairs, they expertly slice, stretch, and shape the curds into milky white balls, which they toss into an awaiting receptacle.
“The mozzatura (pulling and shaping) must be done by hand to get the right texture,” Teresa Palmieri says.
I ask her why Vannulo products are only available at the farm. Her answer, like everything else here, is about quality. “If we start bringing in distributors and intermediaries, then our cheeses, our products, become something different,” she says. “The only way we can be sure that the consumer is getting the product as we intend it to be is if it passes from our hand to theirs.”