Assignment #1 from my writing class: a taste that changed your lifeI thought you might enjoy reading my ode!
Had you told me, years ago, that I’d be transported to an other-worldly culinary plane by an unassuming cheese made from the milk of the homely water buffalo, I’d have laughed. Perhaps hysterically. I’d long considered mozzarella completely over-rated sensorily. No taste, a dull mouthfeel, viscid…for some reason, eating it consistently made me feel like I was gumming just-poured cement.
Let’s face it, most domestically-made mozzarellas –think Polly-O- appeal to a palate that prefers American cheese singles: those eerily consistent slices of “cheese” that come pre-cut with beveled edges, each waxy square snugly wrapped in an easy-open parcel of cellophane. Quelle horreur! For most of my life, I opted for feta and goat cheese whenever possible because each provided a tang, a burst on the tongue that made pretty much any dish –from the humblest of cracker to the richest of tarts- rise to greater heights. Why waste my time on the dreaded ball which provided little beyond fat and chalky heft!
As I would later learn and by which I would, gratefully, be humbled, there are wildly disparate interpretations of mozzarella. The King of All, in my opinion, is that crafted from the milk of the water buffalo of Campania, a region in southern Italy. It is not believed that the water buffalo is native to any part of the Italian peninsula, but they have certainly found a happy niche there if the taste of their milk is even a modest indicator of contentedness.
In terms of mozzarella production, buffalo milk trumps cow’s milk in two critical ways: it has a lower water content and a much higher -some estimates put it at double – percentage of fat. Because of these qualities, producers using buffalo milk need less of it to make the same amount of cheese. In addition, buffalo milk’s fat concentration is the glorious culprit behind mozzarella di bufala’s intensely creamy disposition.
Making buffalo milk mozzarella is truly an artisanal craft. Cheese-makers pass milk through multiple steps in a process that must be started within twelve hours of milking. Much of this work - coagulation, heating, curd maturation and breaking, acidification, spinning, forming and salting – is done manually, and it takes no stretch of the imagination to believe that mastery takes much in the way of practice over time.
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to have a fresh orb of buffalo mozzarella before you, you’ll recall that it trembles at the slightest touch, as if its curds are being held together by the most tenuous of threads. But it is in no way wimpy or flaccid; there’s no grim wobble or waxy list to one side or the other. No, this is a proud cheese; what whey it weeps makes you want plunge your tongue onto the plate immediately so as to prevent any possible waste. When you challenge its exterior with a sharp blade, there is but the slightest resistance, yet it then gives way to a glistening, snow-white interior not the least bit grainy or dull. Rather, the tang of even the smallest bite will, without fail, force you to pause. To stop. To close your eyes, breathe deeply and exclaim: “Did I really just taste something so ethereal? Is there any more? I simply must have more.”
Though incredibly good on a fresh pizza fired at the highest heat you can muster and studded with fresh tomatoes and basil or as the foundation for a true caprese salad, I find mozzarella di bufala to be at its most stupefyingly delicious when dressed with nothing more than a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. This simplicity allows your tongue to be fully, blissfully enveloped by the cheese because truly, it is its own star; the olive oil and salt are supporting actors, providing just enough spark to highlight the ovoline’s velvety piquancy.
Indeed, the utter elementality of mozzarella di bufala is what had such a profound impact on me both the first time I tasted it and each time since. There’s nothing superfluous or overwrought in buffalo milk mozzarella, and in that regard, it seems a perfect distillation of what I know and love about Italian cooking and culture: patience and mindful tending manage to coax the most extraordinary flavor from the most ordinary of ingredients. Perhaps a romanticized perspective, it is, nonetheless, why I never balk at paying upwards of $9 for one gorgeous globe. It’s why I always try to sneak the larger “half” when my husband and I are preparing our weekly pizza. It’s why I still savor and am surprised by each morsel as if it were my first.