Monday, January 27, 2014

Where Buffalo Roam

Where Buffalo Roam

Another brilliantly bright day dawned on the ‘Cilento’.  We had been there before.  The ‘Cilento’, an area of Campania not far from Calitri, stretches along the broad coastal plain from Salerno south past the archeological site of Paestum to the town of Sapri.  The real estate in between is a rich agricultural and farming area, best noted as far as we can tell for vegetables and raising livestock.

            We'd arrived at the Olimpico Hotel and Resort.  We'd also been there before. On arrival we discovered that our friends, Dan and Roberta, were off on an adventure of their own to the coastal towns of Amalfi and Positano.  We had driven over to spend their last night at the hotel with them.  Wonderful day that it was, we soon hit the beach just across the street.  I took a dip in the sea followed later by one in the hotel’s pool while Maria Elena got her exercise sipping an Aperol Spritz and 'toothpicking' olives by the side of the pool.  She chose the better course by far, for though I enjoyed my foray, I would soon pay the price.  I developed what was first diagnosed as ‘swimmer’s ear’.  I went first to a local Calitri doctor and then an ear, nose and throat specialist.  The specialist 'grew' the initial diagnosis following a horse-sized hypodermic needle ear-flush!  Reading the tea-leaves, in this case a black colored waxen nasty looking discharge, it was duly pronounced that I had an ear infection complicated by fungus!  It seemed that it was not only the cheese that is aged with fungus in Italy, but myself.  This would plague me for several weeks but that will remain the subject of another story.

            Later that evening, once again reunited with Dan and Roberta, together we enjoyed one more go at dinner at "Heaven", a restaurant we enjoy just across the street on the shore.  There is nothing wrong with the hotel's restaurant but Maria Elena and I especially enjoy the atmosphere in "Heaven".  Its interior is a cross between the charm of Casablanca’s ‘Rick’s’ and the high ceilinged dining room of New York’s ‘Plaza’.  Shroud the TV set, retrofit the clothing and you could imagine yourself back in the 50s, maybe the 40s.  I love this place.  After all, doesn't everyone want to go to Heaven?  Having earlier introduced Roberta to alici fritte (fried anchovies) and cozze (mussels) in a piccante (spicy) tomato sauce, they'd gone there on their own a few times during their stay at the Hotel Olimpico.  While Dan focused on the many delicious pizzas available, Roberta was hooked on the plump, succulent cozze and had ordered it repeatedly.  We were plump ourselves by the time we departed for that last night's stay at the Olimpico.

         Well digested from the evening's repast and by morning sated following a fine breakfast, together we departed the Olimpico.  Before introducing our friends to Calitri, we would first visit Tenuto Vannulo, a water buffalo dairy farm in Capaccio Scalo, home of Mozzarella di Buffala (Buffalo Mozzarella).  We'd been put on to Tenuto Vannulo by British neighbors in Calitri, Bernie and Gerry, who had themselves visited the complex.  From their description, I'd formed a mental image of what to expect but I was way, way wide of the mark.

Our GPS, Margaret, was on a binge.  Not knowing exactly where this farm was, I was none the wiser and followed her lead.  She immediately took us cross-country, when I later learned that a simple drive down the coast, followed by a turn inland, would have brought us there much easier.  At one point we found ourselves on a narrow back lane.  Grass covered our path in places.  All I could think of was that line in the very small print of the rental agreement that warns you not to go off-road!  Even an older gentleman, out walking his dog, looked mildly miffed at finding us where we were.   He was nice enough though to confirm we were in the proper area and if we kept at it, straight ahead, we would eventually arrive in Capaccio Scalo.  I'd have to have a talk with Margaret!

Finally breaking out onto Via Magna Grecia, I pulled over for directions at a street-side storefront.  In my best pidgin Italian, I asked the proprietor where Tenuto Vannulo might be, hoping we were close.  Amazingly, we had arrived in Capaccio Scalo and our destination was just ahead but exactly where, it wasn’t really clear.  Continuing down SP276 into and through town, we, really just me, overshot Via Italia, the only address we had.  Seems street signs were at a premium.  Following a quick visual check to be sure no one was around, I made a u-turn in the road and retraced our route  until we turned left on what I hoped was Via Italia.  We headed down this non-descript street lined with homes leading to what appeared to be the outskirts of town, a likely place for a farm.  It was there that we found the entrance to Tenuto Vannulo, a modern buffalo mozzarella and leather complex.  Just how modern, we would soon realize.

            I was impressed the moment we entered the property.  A long avenue lined with trees formally led us into an immense, well maintained, park-like estate filled with native Mediterranean plants.  We soon discovered there were three main areas.  The first, where we parked, was the buffalo mozzarella processing area along with sales areas for its milk products.  Behind it was a building with a long inviting veranda where leather products were manufactured and sold.  Lastly, giving true meaning to the musical refrain “ ... a home where the buffalo roam ...”, there was the farm complex itself, where we understood, 300 cows, 200 calves and 4 very happy bulls made their home.

            It was early.  There weren't yet many visitors like us around.  That would change before we'd depart, however.  Through a passage between a 'yogurteria’ and the cheese sales shop, we entered a large backyard piazza.  It was here that we watched Mozzarella di Buffala making up close through a large plate glass window where visitors could stand and watch as the process of transforming freshly gathered buffalo milk into this tasty cheese unfolded.  Luckily I got an even closer look.  Maybe it was my nose pressed to the glass that got the attention of the workers.  Maybe it was because on that particular day, at that particular moment, we four were the only spectators.  The men inside waved me inside.  Honestly, I couldn't get in there fast enough.  Trying best not to interrupt, I snapped away quietly from a corner as they went about tugging and twisting the cheese.  They were rubber booted, dressed head to toe in antiseptic white, even capped with baseball type caps, white of course.  At first I thought they were holding hands, which is not uncommon in Italy.  I needed to get closer.

        Mozzarella is produced following strict recipes, undoubtedly some as secret as Coca-Cola's formulary.  In addition to fresh buffalo milk, the brew requires rennet (a milk coagulant), milk enzymes, the right amount of heat, time and a smidgen of Old World traditions.  The coagulate is then crumbled in other vats and stirred (“not shaken”) once hot water is added.  It’s then that the magic happens and the ‘crumblies’ somehow combine into a smooth and elastic mozzarella cheese embryo.  Entrepreneurs in the US have as yet been unsuccessful trying to duplicate this process.  Even with herds of their own water buffalos, something in the final product seems to be missing.  The American product as yet seems rubbery and reportedly squeaky between the teeth.  It may all lie in that smidgen of old fashioned tradition.  It seemed easy to make that day at Tenuto Vannulo, where all the mozzarella produced on the premises each and every day is sold out exclusively in the estate’s cheese shop, not commercially throughout the area.  Such is the demand.  With each cow producing from eight to ten liters of milk a day, that’s some heap of cheese. 
        The name mozzarella comes from the Italian word, "mozzare", meaning "to cut off".  The particular method of cutting the elastic buffalo milk curd, la mozzatura (slicing) provides it with its unique shape and distinct size.  At Vannulo, the mozzatura is still entirely made by hand which accounts for why, from a distance, it looked like the cheesemakers were holding hands across a vat of creamy white whey.  Like pulling taffy, they kneaded, stretched and twisted ropes of mozzarella in an incessant massaging action all the while, for some reason, exchanging ends with each other.  At some moment of mutual agreement, likely based on just the right feel, they’d stop the ‘patty cake’ and lop off a perfect mozzare ball of the desired size.   The balls were then placed in cold water followed by a soak in a brine bath to absorb just the right amount of salt making the snowball orbs fibrous and elastic.  The final result is sweet and creamy on the inside but to get there you first have to slice through an outer surface layer rich in oozing milk, ready to weep its lactic lifeblood.  Fresh mozzarella leaves a lot of liquid even before it has been cut open, more so when it has been.  The entire porcelain-white sphere is edible but you will notice a slight resistance to your knife as though cutting through an imperceptible rind protecting its snowy white interior.  In a way Mozzarella Di Bufala inhabits the semi-region, somewhere between solid and liquid.  
            It was now time to see where all that buffalo milk came from.  We were on our own; All we needed to do was find them!  Looking around, we noticed a lengthy corrugated metal roofed building and headed that way.  A short walk later, we arrived at an expansive open air building where the buffalo herd was housed.  These docile beasts lived beneath something I’d call a sunshade building.  There were no walls supporting its massive roof, just pillars.  A central pavilion containing office spaces and overlooking balconies took up the center of this giant parasol structure.  Surrounding it was a flat muddied space, home to 300 plus water buffalos divided in half into two matching sides. 
            The introduction of water buffalo into Italy remains a mystery to this day.  It may be one of the hazards of having such a long history.  Some claim that they, along with elephants, accompanied invading Hannibal.  Others speculate that Asian water buffalos were brought to Italy by migrating Goths.  However, if an official sounding though lengthy title has any weight, the "Consortium for the Protection of the Buffalo Cheese of Campania", an organization of approximately 200 producers, that under law is responsible for the "protection, surveillance, promotion and marketing" of Mozzarella di Bufala Campana cheese has another opinion.  According to them, the most likely explanation is that Arabs introduced the buffalo to Sicily at the time when they dominated the island (827 to 1061 AD) and later, the Normans introduced them to mainland Italy.  Interestingly, of more recent history, mozzarella production in the Cilento was briefly interrupted during World War II, when retreating German troops slaughtered the area's water buffalo herds.  After the war, the Italian government acted to introduce new water buffalo stock at reasonable prices and once again this rarified mozzarella became available.
         Unlike its North American cousin, water buffalos are tar-black, sport short haired coats, are straight backed and plod around marshy areas with specially suited flat hooves.  They also look more like the typical cow.  Unlike cows, however, they produce only a fraction of the milk you get from a typical dairy cow.  Their milk is also different with roughly twice the fat and more calories but less cholesterol then cow's milk, which makes it decadently creamy and flavorful.  Their sweptback, mostly flattened though curly horns have a distinctive rippled surface remindful of long flat bean pods.  These beasts appeared to be extremely passive as they went about their routine.  We quickly realized that on this automated organic farm the buffalos were well cared for and enjoyed a veritable "Life of Riley".
            Watching the computerized automatic milking was a highlight of my visit.  Long gone are the days of three-legged stools along with a team of milkmen.  Robotic milking machines rule here and not the kind we are used to seeing where a man places suction cups on the teats before walking away.  Instead there was just cow and machine.  It was fascinating to watch.  The role of man had been entirely substituted by machine.  Light beams have been substituted for human hands!  I was not sure what the light beams consisted of ... they could have been lasers of some sort.  They somehow lock onto the teats and viola, slip into place totally without operator intervention.  After milking, they also remove themselves, all on their own.  In fact, we saw only one workman in the entire area.  Imagine 300 cows and one overseer to the whole process.  The introduction of these on-demand robots has entirely changed the milking process.  By so doing, the relationship between man and buffalo has changed profoundly.  The buffaloes retain a more natural and less stressing rhythm to their lives, as now they decide for themselves when to give milk.  That’s right, the cows decide when they want to be milked.  The cows are trained to enter automatic milking machines unaided.  We watched as two or three at a time would negotiate their way through steel pipe corrals to their turn on the machine.  When the milking ceased minutes later, gates opened to allow the animal to exit and another to enter.  For their part, dairy farmers no longer need to continually concern themselves with the animals’ needs but have assumed the role of observers, supervisors and possibly machine maintainers.  It seems each cow has an identifying wafer implanted in its shoulder, which announces its presence to sensors and aids computers to keep statistics on its host's milk production.  When the cow delivers about 7.5 liters of milk and then approaches the gate to the feeding area, a computerized gate will open to allow the cow to enter in order to feed.  Interestingly, this approximately 500 acre farm grows all the forage necessary to feed its hungry herd organically, making it today the only organic buffalo farm in Italy.
            After feeding, cows traverse comfy rubber mats to a massaging area where large car-wash style spinning brushes will scratch their shoulders and backs but only if a cow decides to stop and indulge.  They can then lounge on rubber mattresses, even take a shower, as they bide their time only to repeat the process the next day.  The cows have become automatons to self-gratification, all to the accompaniment of music … nothing as simple as “Home on the Range” for these cows.  They listen to Brahms and Beethoven!  All is not Shangri-La, however.  Cows that do not stay on the machines to give the requisite quota of milk are denied access to the feeding area.  Realizing this when the gate doesn't open, a cow will return to be milked until reaching its milk quota.  Talk about well trained, and here I thought that TV ad where your dog fetches you a beer from the refrigerator was fantasy!  Well organized, with considerable emphasis on the welfare of the animals, the operation appeared truly animal friendly though I couldn’t help but wonder later, when visiting the leather-goods annex, where all the leather had come from!  Could it be that the inventory was a reflection on cows with consistently poor milk production?  Another question occurred to me.  How long could a buffalo last if it never got that feed gate to open?  I didn't ask! 

            A visit to the Vannulo estate should not be considered complete without a stop at their leather handcraft shop.  The shop with the long veranda sells handsome leather aprons, briefcases, and that essential of women's fashion, exquisitely crafted handbags.  No news to most husbands, but they best beware ... women just love this stuff!  I was tempted myself but then what would I do with a fine leather carrying case now that I'm retired?  It was a close call nevertheless, for only a quick mental conversion from Euros to Dollars on Maria Elena's part discouraged her from a purchase.  No purchase is necessary to simply fondle everything with your eyes, however.  These authentic works of art emphasized the artistic skills and beauty of traditional Old World craftsmen techniques brought to life with a modern twist.  Each timeless hand cut piece was embellished with a miniature "V" for Vannulo logo embossed into the leather to mark its authenticity.  Without question this was handcrafted Italian leather meant for someone who wants and can afford to own nothing but the best, definitely Italian style at its finest.

            In addition to the visual pleasures throughout the farm and those attained from touching fine leather, there are additional delights brought on by tasty treats.  It was time for refreshments.  Inside the ‘yogurteria’ we found yogurts, puddings and gelato all of course made from the local buffalo milk.  By this time, the number of visitors had multiplied considerably.  This was more than adequately confirmed by the number of tour buses now in the lot and the number of anxious customers inside.  This made for a crowd at the service counter where outnumbered young girls desperately scooping, mixing and pouring, tried their best to keep up.  Apparently using raw materials of the highest quality guaranteed an unforgettable taste experience that every visitor sought.  We, however, wouldn't know because after a while we gave up waiting, deciding instead to head for the mozzarella shop next door before either the crowd there became equally impassible or God forbid, they ran out of mozzarella.

            The cheese sales office adjacent to the processing area itself took up a space even smaller than the yogurteria.  This was surprising considering the demand for Tenuta Vannulo cheese.  Italy is a confusion of cheeses.  It abounds in cheeses with major varieties like Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Asiago, and Pecorino in addition to lesser known regional varietals like Caciocavallo.  Just as there are cheeses, there are cheeses.  In the world of mozzarella, there is mozzarella made from cow's milk and then there is buffalo mozzarella.  Buffalo mozzarella, the undisputed heavyweight champion, is king of cheeses and dominates the Italian dinner table.  The absolute highest quality buffalo mozzarella bears the "La Mozzarella di Bufala Campana" trademark.  It was time to get some of these trademarked puffy pillows of white gold and this time we were willing to wait.  We found that the dairy carried a full range of traditional products like buffalo mozzarella of course but also ricotta fresca and salata (a variety that has been pressed hard, salted and dried), scamorza (similar to a provolone), even burro (butter).  We were after the mozzarella of course.  When our turn came, we ordered two of the largest balls, which came in an insulated box.  Inside were familiar sealed plastic bags containing the cheese suspended in a liquid, good for a few days keeping.  All told the cost came to approximately $7.90 per pound, though we'd have paid more.  In our minds, the memory of our visit still as fresh as the cheese, we looked forward to sampling our purchases later that evening in Calitri.

            I’d say that a visit to Tenuto Vannulo is an obligatory stop if you are anywhere in the area - go out of your way if you must.  Along with our companions, I can say we all enjoyed our time there immensely.  Supported by a cast of hundreds of seemingly thoroughly contented water buffalos, Vannulo weaves together the beauty of a history of tradition into flavors and forms for modern times.  There is enough there to put Kraft's Velveeta, even American cheddar cheese, not to mention Bordon's cartoon "Elsie the Cow" character to shame.  Dinner that night proved it.  This was real cheese.   It spoke to us in bits and bites at the table that night until we too anointed it King. 

From That Rogue Tourist,

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy.  Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Where Buffalo Roam”.