|English: Water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), Thailand. Français : Un buffle d'eau (Bubalus bubalis), photographié en Thaïlande. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
Entrepreneurs Hoping to Make Mozzarella Coax Curds From Herds; 'They're in Charge'
TOMALES, Calif.—Craig Ramini couldn't stop dreaming of mozzarella, so he bought a herd of water buffalo to milk.
But the beasts haven't been team players, and more than two years later, the cheese is still mostly in his dreams. (click below to read more)
Mr. Ramini first ate buffalo mozzarella as a teenager visiting Italy. It was porcelain-white and melted in his mouth, as it does when freshly made in the Italian fashion from water-buffalo milk.
He couldn't forget it. As an adult, he couldn't find anything as divine in the U.S., where domestic mozzarella is mostly from cow's milk and imported mozzarella is sometimes cut with cow's milk or frozen.
So the former software consultant took matters into his own hands in late 2009, buying five water buffalo. Mr. Ramini, now 54 years old, founded a little dairy here 55 miles north of San Francisco to make mozzarella.
But the buffalo, Mr. Ramini discovered, don't produce much milk and don't much like being milked. He has been thrown by his beasts, teased by other dairymen and spent a lot of time worrying about the creatures' feelings. "If I've learned one thing it's that you can't rush these animals," he says. "They're in charge of making decisions."
Two and a half years later, he has eked out enough milk to produce a ball of cheese.
Buffalo believers are eager for Mr. Ramini to figure out his cheese. Chefs in the San Francisco Bay area routinely visit him to ensure they'll get mozzarella when it's ready. "Everybody wants it," says John Franchetti, co-owner of the high-end Rosso Pizzeria in Petaluma, Calif., who hung a painting of one of Mr. Ramini's buffalo on a restaurant wall.
But there are good bovine reasons, Mr. Ramini found, that there is little buffalo mozzarella in the U.S. Unlike in Italy, where water buffalo have long been bred to maximize milk production, most of the 8,000 or so water buffalo in this country trace to ancestors imported in the 1970s for a different trait: their appetite for aquatic weeds. They aren't native to the U.S. or related to the American Buffalo, which, technically, isn't a buffalo but a bison.
"The U.S. population is in borderline feral condition," says Kent Underwood, who worked on a water-buffalo dairy in Vermont that went out of business and now does consulting.
A water buffalo produces about 15 pounds of milk daily. A well-bred dairy cow can produce more than 50 pounds. The low lactation level is one reason other U.S. water-buffalo-cheese operations haven't lasted long.
And extracting that milk requires humoring the beasts, says Ron Klein, whose small Michigan water-buffalo herd stopped producing milk when the weather got cold. Mr. Klein says he sold water-buffalo Camembert for as much as $50 a pound. But rather than invest the time and money to keep his herd producing milk most of the year, he sold them and is focusing on goat milk.
The buffalo, he says, "required a type of interaction that I've never had with any kind of animal, even a human."
Mr. Ramini, who says he has invested about $350,000 in his venture, bought five pregnant females from an abandoned water-buffalo dairy near Los Angeles in 2009, and then four more from an Arkansas breeder. He moved onto 25 acres of ranchland here.
Shortly after he signed his lease, some of his beasts escaped, and he chased them around a house on the property for about 45 minutes. Last year while he was hosing out a trough, one stuck a horn between Mr. Ramini's legs and threw him. Another flattened a marketing agent who was checking out Mr. Ramini's business.
Mr. Ramini describes his animals as "independent thinkers."
They're also suspicious and don't like change. When Mr. Ramini first got his buffalo, he led them to the dairy barn twice a day to get them used to the routine.
And they're squeamish about being milked. "They aren't used to being touched down there," Mr. Ramini says.
He tried attaching collars and tying them to a metal post, but his creatures wouldn't stand for it. Last year, he ordered custom-made milking stanchions with openings wide enough for a water buffalo's big head and horns. But the animals fought so hard "they practically would break their horns off," he says.
Mr. Ramini used a milking machine—he had to take it apart and reassemble the motor outside the barn as the noise bothered the buffalo—but he was still only getting a couple of pounds a day.
The buffalo began to give milk, but then stopped producing all but a trickle. Soon, they refused to enter the barn.
Finally, this spring, he built a metal stall for two buffalo, single file. He sealed the windows because the animals were distracted by passing tractors and cows.
So far, milk production has increased to about 18 pounds each from his top animals this month, up from less than a pound of milk in March.
In April, Mr. Ramini was convinced that he'd solved the milk problem and started learning how to make the cheese.
Mozzarella isn't aged. A cheesemaker treats milk with an enzyme to create curds and forms them into balls. Most of Mr. Ramini's first curds wouldn't form balls, and one batch didn't even form curds.
Through May and early June his curds got better but didn't retain as much moisture as he would like. Then he had a breakthrough: "I produced some buffalo mozzarella that was good," he says. He even let others try it.
Mr. Ramini is convinced he's on his way and he's getting help. Andrew Zlot, a Hong Kong hedge-fund manager, invested in Mr. Ramini's operation, then quit his job and last month starting working on the farm. This month, an Italian cheese maestro arrived to give Mr. Ramini lessons.
To breed a generation more inclined to dairy work, Mr. Ramini impregnates his buffalo with water-buffalo semen from Italy.
For now, he still must tend to the buffaloes' mental state. One recent day, Mr. Ramini stopped visitors as they approached the pen and asked them to sit nearby for about 20 minutes.
"Let them get acclimated to you," he said. "It's hard enough to milk a water buffalo without the mothers freaking out."