Mozzarella: The (Buffa)Lo-Down

Possibly one of my favourite things about cheese is that it is, at its core, a humble food. It’s an ancient way in which to preserve milk, a familiar, time-honoured dance between fresh, warm milk and natural bacteria. A simple meal of cheese and bread can be one of life’s greatest pleasures, and yet cheese can be incredibly complex, with nuances of flavour that many other foods just don’t have. This dichotomy between basic and brilliant is what keeps me so fascinated with cheese; some might even say obsessed, and my mouth is too full of cheese to argue with those people.

Real buffalo milk mozzarella is the perfect example of this. It somehow manages to be both wonderfully simple fare and complete decadence, a soft and tantalising treat hovering delicately between solid and liquid. When you cut into it, milky-white pearls of whey seep seductively out from the heart of the cheese; this is usually where I lose my tenuous grasp on self-control and must eat all of it. Immediately. (My poor boyfriend has long resigned himself to the fact that I’ll probably never talk about him with the same level of infatuation that I reserve for full fat dairy.) It’s so good that you can just take a lump of crusty bread and a splash of olive oil and go to town on it, and it’ll rock your world with its unique, loose-but-firm mouthfeel, soft buttery taste and subtle, sweet finish.

Considering how insanely good buffalo milk cheese is, I sometimes feel that it’s a shame it’s not a bigger part of our culture here in western Europe. The glaring exception to this is obviously Italy, with its famous – and rightly so – buffalo milk mozzarella. This time last year, I was living in Italy, and I made some wonderful new friends while I was there. I’d met buffalo mozzarella before, but after my time living in its homeland I knew we’d be buddies for life. We shared some unforgettable moments together, like the time my girlfriends and I ate so much that we decided we should be known as The Sisterhood Who Can’t Fit In Their Pants. Now that I’m home, the amazing Irish-made Toonsbridge Dairy is tiding me over very nicely. When you think about water buffalo, Italy isn’t exactly the first place that springs to mind. It seems like such an exotic breed, much more suited to the steeply-tiered rice paddies of Vietnam than the Italian countryside, and in fact there’s still some debate over how water buffalo came to reside there in the first place. One theory says that Asian water buffalo were brought to Italy by invading Goths during early medieval times; another, that the Arabs introduced them to Sicily and they were brought to the mainland from there. Either way, we know that water buffalo were being raised in southern Italy by the 12th century.

Although these beautiful beasts were roaming the country this early, they were originally viewed as work animals due to their sheer strength and calm, obedient disposition, and their milk wasn’t used to make cheese until the 18th century. They’ve also had a bit of a rocky time of it: the stupid Nazis killed off all the herds in 1940, so more buffalo had to be imported from India in order to reintroduce the breed after the war. Since then, mozzarella di bufala has become one of Italy’s most well-known products, a flagship of Italian food culture. In order to ensure the conservation of this product, buffalo mozzarella from the Campania region bears the “Mozzarella di Bufala Campana” trademark, and has held DOC status since 1993. The EU later granted this region’s mozzarella a Protected Geographical Status in 2008.

Mozzarella is a pasta filata, or stretched curd, cheese. After the buffalo are milked, the raw (unpasteurised) milk curds are left to ferment for a couple of hours, chopped into pieces, then covered with boiling water in order to firm it up. Long strings of curd gradually join together to form one giant mass. Once the liquid has been drained away, the stringy curds are then cut or pinched off from this motherly mass, often by hand – this process gives the cheese its name, as mozzare is the Italian for “to cut.” The cheese is immersed in water in order to firm it up, before being covered in a light brine called salamoia.

So what makes buffalo milk different to bovine? For a start, it’s much higher in fat, with around twice the fat content as cow milk; this means it’s perfect for making rich, indulgently-creamy cheese. You might think that this automatically makes cow milk the healthier choice, but there’s actually a very good nutritional argument for buffalo. It’s lower in cholesterol than cows’ milk, lower in sodium, and provides significantly higher levels of protein. Buffalo milk is also rich in minerals like calcium, zinc, phosphorus and niacin, as well as vitamins B1, B2, B6 and E.

If you’re buying buffalo mozzarella, bear in mind that it should be enjoyed young and fresh. This shouldn’t be a problem, because if you have the willpower to leave it sitting there, uneaten, for more than a day, then you’re obviously some sort of heartless, soulless shell. (If you are a heartless, soulless shell, and do plan on leaving it for a day or two, then bear in mind that mozzarella should always, always be stored in its salamoia.) In the summertime, a decent Caprese salad is as good as it ever, ever gets: tear up your mozzarella and pile it on a plate with juicy, ripe tomatoes, and fresh basil leaves. Glug some good-quality olive oil over it and get stuck in. Seeing as the weather is super-cold here right now, an aubergine parmigiana is an ideal dinner: it’s hearty and warming, real winter comfort food.

Melanzane alla Parmigiana

Serves 4, possibly with some amazing leftovers

Grab these:

  • 3 medium aubergines, cut into inch-thick slices
  • Salt and black pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1 heaped teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon of tomato puree
  • 2 x 400g tins of plum tomatoes, broken up
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • A large handful of fresh basil leaves
  • 2 balls of mozzarella, thinly sliced
  • 100g fresh grated parmesan

Now do this:

  1. Preheat the oven to 190°C.
  2. Place the aubergine slices in a colander, sprinkle with salt and then allow them to sit for around half an hour; this will help them to release their bitter juices.
  3. While the aubergines are sitting in the colander, get cracking on the tomato sauce. Heat a decent glug of olive oil in a large pan over a low heat. Put in the garlic, onion and oregano, and cook for a minute before adding in the tomato puree.
  4. Cook for another minute or so, and then chuck in the tins of tomatoes, season well with salt and pepper, and add the sugar. Turn up the heat and bring the sauce to the boil, then reduce the heat to low, pop a lid on the pan and simmer for around fifteen minutes until the sauce has thickened. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
  5. Rinse the slices of aubergine and pat them dry with kitchen paper. Splash some olive oil into a frying pan on a medium-high heat, and add the aubergine slices a few at a time to brown. Fry them in small batches to avoid crowding the pan, and then drain them on kitchen paper and season with salt and pepper.
  6. Line the bottom of an oven-proof dish with a thin layer of tomato sauce. Cover this with a layer of aubergine slices, then a third of the mozzarella, and scatter on some of the basil leaves. Keep going with this pattern for another two tiers, finishing the last layer with grated Parmesan instead of basil.
  7. Lash it into the oven and bake for around 20-25 minutes, or until the cheese is golden around the edges. This is a pretty filling meal, so a simple side salad is technically all you’ll need; if you’re extra hungry (or you’re as greedy as I am), add some good garlic bread.

PS. If you’re into weird breakfasts like I am, any leftovers will make you very, very happy.

Are you helplessly addicted to buffalo mozzarella? Leave a comment below.

[All images featured via ShutterStock.]