Posted by: oysterculture | April 23, 2009

Where the water buffalo roam

Water Buffalo (photo from Wiki)  

Water Buffalo (photo from Wiki)

When I learned that buffalo mozzarella was made from the milk of water buffalo, it did not cause me to pause.  I did not even stop to consider, goodness, there are buffalo in Italy – no mention in any guide book.  No, it took being nearly laughed out of the room for the fact to hit me smack in the head.  It was not until I smugly informed my husband and brother how”buffalo mozzarella” had acquired its name and nearly got ridiculed for my attempts at culinary education that it dawned on me.  Wow, water buffalo roam in Italy.  Wait a minute,….WATER BUFFALO!   An animal definitely not native to Europe – so where the heck did they come from?  Why are they there?  (Hint, a bit of research alludes to an epic romance, that only Shakespeare could conjure up)

Cheese is generally made from the milk of three different animals: cow, sheep or goat.   Mozzarella is an exception, requiring the milk of the water buffalo, and hence the reason it commonly goes by the name buffalo mozzarella.  (Although you can find “mozzarella” style cheese made with cow’s milk – it is not the same).   

Anthony and Cleopatra (photo from wonderousbenefitsofaloe)

Anthony and Cleopatra (photo from wonderousbenefitsofaloe)

Legend has it that 2,000 years ago when Rome was considered the center of the world, and Julius Caesar its ruler – Rome conquered Egypt.  Egypt’s wily queen, Cleopatra beguiled Anthony as he assumed control of the country for Rome.  It was amore, and part of the wooing, I image, required many a day floating on barges on the Nile, idly nibbling local delicacies.  Picture fingers dangling in the water as you drift serenely on a barge nibbling the goodies proffered – figs and bits of luscious cheese.  One such cheese was made from water buffalo milk.  Understandably, Anthony became a big fan of this cheese and sent water buffalo back to Caesar with instructions on cheese making.  No surprise, this  cheese became an overnight sensation (salted caramels might be a good comparison).  The Italians quickly adapted the water buffalo to life on the plains between Rome and Naples.  

The mozzarella style of the cheese,that we know today, was said to be the result of some cheese curds accidently falling into a pail of hot water at a cheese factory near Naples.  I love happy consequences!  Given the unique source of milk, true mozzarella can not be duplicated anywhere else.  Although, a mozzarella style cheese exists, and is made with cow’s milk and it is called Fior di Latte.  After World War II, Mozzarella di Bufala was discontinued for a time when the retreating Nazis destroyed the water buffalo herds.  The Italians eventually acquired more of the animals from India.  Of the two cheeses, the one made from water buffalo milk is generally preferred; considered the finer and sweeter of the two.

Fresh mozzarella is generally white, but may vary seasonally depending on the animal’s diet.  It is classified as a semi-soft cheese, and due to its high moisture content, it is traditionally served the day it is made, as it does not keep well.  But storing the cheese in brine or in vacuum-sealed packages extends its life. Low-moisture or smoked mozzarella (affumicata) can keep refrigerated for up to a month.  Generally the lower the moisture content, the longer the shelf life.  


Mozzarella is produced from the milk of the domestic water buffalo. After curdling the product is drained and the whey discarded. The cheese is then stretched and kneaded to produce a delicate consistency — this process is generally known as pasta filata.  “The cheesemaker kneads it with his hands, like a baker making bread, until he obtains a smooth, shiny paste, a strand of which he pulls out and lops off, forming the individual mozzarella.”  Traditional shapes include a ball or a plait (treccia).  In Italy, a “rubbery” consistency that can be found in some US mozzarella is not satisfactory; the cheese is expected to be softer.

The name “mozzarella” is derived from southern Italian dialects, was the diminutive form of mozza (cut), or mozzare (to cut off) derived from the method of working. Other theories describe its origins as a minor preparation of “scamozza” (Scamorza cheese), which probably derives from “scamozzata” (“without a shirt”), alluding to the fact that these cheeses have no rind.

Variations on a Theme (types of mozzarella you might find)

  • Ciliegine  – “Cherry Size”  
  • Bocconcini – Bite Size”  
  • Ovoline – “Egg Size” 

Naples, Italy

Naples (photo from ultimateitaly)

Naples (photo from ultimateitaly)


Naples (Italian: Napoli, Neapolitan: Napule) in Italy, is the capital of the region of Campania. The city is known for its rich history, art, culture and gastronomy, all play an important role throughout its existence; it is over 2,800 years old.  Naples is halfway between two volcanic areas, the volcano Mount Vesuvius and the Phlegraean Fields, sitting on the coast by the Gulf of Naples.  Founded by the Ancient Greeks  Neápolis (New City), held an important role as part of the Roman Republic.

Naples is one of the world with greater density of cultural resources and monuments who includes 2800 years of history: the most prominent forms of architecture in Naples are from the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods.  A striking feature of Naples is the fact that it has 448 historical churches, making it one of the most Catholic cities in the world.  The historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Naples was the capital city of a kingdom which bore its name from 1282 until 1816 in the form of the Kingdom of Naples, then in union with Sicily it was the capital of the Two Sicilies until the Italian unification.

After Rome and Milan, it is the third largest city in Italy, and the 15th largest in Europe. In the central area, the city itself has a population of around 1 million people–the inhabitants are known as Neapolitans.  

A strong part of Neapolitan culture which has had wide reaching effects is music, including the invention of the romantic guitar and the mandolin as well as strong contributions to opera and folk standards.

Nibbles of History

The city became an ally of the Roman Republic against Carthage; the strong walls surrounding Naples or Neapolis as it was known, stopped Hannibal from invading.  The city was greatly respected by the Romans as a place of Hellenistic culture: the people maintained their Greek language and customs; elegant villas, aqueducts, and public baths.  A theatre and the Temple of Dioscures were built, and powerful emperors vacationed in the city including Claudius and Tiberius.  

It was a cultural powerhouse during the Baroque era as a home to artists including Caravaggio, Rosa and Bernini, philosophers such as Telesio, Bruno, Campanella and Vico, and writers such as Battista Marino.  

During the time of Ferdinand IV, the French Revolution made its way to Naples: Horatio Nelson, an ally of the Bourbons, warned the city against it. However, Ferdinand was forced to retreat and fled to Palermo, where he was protected by the British fleet.  Naples’ lower classes the lazzaroni were Royalist, and favored the Bourbons; in the ensuing mêlée, they fought the Neapolitan pro-Republican aristocracy sparking a civil war.   

Naples (photo from lonelyplanet)

Naples (photo from lonelyplanet)

Ferdinand IV was restored as king; however, after only seven years Napoleon conquered the kingdom and instated various Bonapartist kings including his brother, Joseph Bonaparte.  With the help of the Austrian Empire and other allies, the Bonapartists were defeated in the Neapolitan War and Bourbon Ferdinand IV once again regained the throne and the kingdom.  

Naples was the most bombed Italian city of World War II.  Though Neapolitans did not rebel under Italian fascism; Naples was the first Italian city to rise up against German military occupation.  The symbol of the rebirth of Naples was the rebuilding of Santa Chiara which was destroyed by an Allied air strike.  Naples has some residual issues, with high unemployment and waste management issue.  The later of which is attributed to the Camorra organised crime network. 

Food of the City

Pizza of course, but beyond that as you might imagine, some seafood comes into play.  Vermicelli with clams and mussels is a favorite, as is Italian style fritters with squid and mullet.  The city is justly famous for its seasonal sweets:  struffoli (cookies made with Strega liqueur, honey and candied sprinkles), seppole (cookies made from black cherry liqueur, fried or baked for St. Joseph’s day) cassate (cakes make from ricotta cheese, almond paste, and chocolate), monachine “little monks” …..  These delicious nibbles are accompanied by coffee or a variety of liqueurs such as limoncello and nicillo (walnut flavored).   

Oyster’s Fast, Easy, Freewheeling Pasta

Serves 6

  • 1 # pasta – I use fuselli
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic roasted, or saute a med sized onion
  • 3T roasted tomatoes stored in olive oil
  • 1/2 c black olives
  • 1 roasted bell pepper, skinned, and diced
  • 1 T capers, drained
  • 3/4 c smoked mozzarella, diced or shredded
  • 1T freshly chopped rosemary
  • 1T fresh basil, chiffonade
  • salt and pepper

Cook the pasta according to directions.  

While the water for the pasta is coming to a boil, roast the garlic and peppers.  Warm the oil in a large pan and add all the ingredients except the pasta, cheese, herbs and spices.  When the pasta is cooked, toss with the ingredients, add the herbs and season to taste with the salt and pepper.   Sprinkle on the cheese prior to serving.

Note:  These ingredients are staples in my kitchen and I mix and match depending on my mood.  This pasta is quick and the smoked cheese adds a nice flavor.  I’ve tried adding the cheese to the batch and mixing it in that way.  Definitely works, but it can result in cheese clumps, which I am certainly not adverse to, and in fact make a point of having them end up in my portion.  =) Its just that the distribution is not the most equitable.



  1. I love learning about ingredients and destinations on your site! Great post! And the pasta sounds awesome!

  2. I always thought the buffalos that make buffalo mozzarella were bison! 🙂 Thanks for the history lesson – very romantic that this popular cheese exists because of Cleopatra and Anthony.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had any of those Neopolitan sweets. I wonder if they would be available seasonally at Italian bakeries around here. According to my Roman/Sicilian neighbor, there’s a significant population of ‘Nablodans’ (‘Neopolitans’ said in the same way as capicolla is pronounced ‘gabagool’ in the Northeast) in my area.

    And your recipe looks delicious. I totally know what you mean about the cheese clumping when you add it too soon!

    Great post. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. I had no idea that water buffalo getting to Italy involved Anthony and Cleopatra! I read something in the A16 book about buffalo mozzarella having a freshness problem in Italy. The author suggested being very sure of the source or going with cow’s milk mozzarella instead.

    The pasta with smoked mozzarella sounds fantastic!

  4. Hi Lisa,

    The freshness problem has to do with the garbage disposal/mafia problem I alluded to in my post. They have such a back up of waste and do not discriminate with where it is placed that the surrounding areas and ground water is getting polluted. The book and maybe the movie Gomorrah talks to this issue. They just made a movie out of the book, and I have no idea what’s included in it.

  5. Yeah the smoked mozza is classic. How good does that sound? Pop it on pizza next!

  6. If you get down to LA or if any of your readers are down there Osteria Mozza is a must. They have an extensive mozza menu (buffalo included) and a mozza tasting menu. I would skip the main course and stick to the apps, mozza, and pasta if you go.

    It’s a shame about Naples – the state of that city shocked. I’ve got Gomorrah on my lovefilm (UK’s netflix) list and very much looking forward to it. The author lives in hiding now so I imagine the book and movie are quite telling.
    Thanks for all the great info as always!

  7. DuoDishes – smoked mozza just makes everything taste better – and it is darn good on a pizza. One of my favorite bakeries, Arizemendi’s makes killer pizza and they use a lot of it.

  8. Hi Adrienne,

    I agree, what I’ve learned of the situation its kinda crazy. I found it interesting that while the author had to go into hiding, the director walks around with no threats what so ever.

    I’ve heard of the LA restaurant you mentioned – thanks for the reminder. Its on my list for the next time I’m down there. I think a similar sort of restaurant opened in DC – need to check it out.

  9. Mozzarella is probably one of my favorites. I always learn something new every time I come here. I never knew that it was originally made from buffalo milk. I guess buffalo’s aren’t as plentiful hence the versions made from cow’s milk. That’s just my assumption.

  10. Hi Jenn,

    I think your right on the availability of the water buffalo milk being an issue. Based on what I read, it appears that the substitution of cow’s milk started after WWII when the water buffalo herds were destroyed. Once they were reintroduced, they realized the cow’s milk version was adequate. I speculate that the cow’s milk version might become more popular if they continue to have pollution issues near Naples.

  11. I learn something new every time I visit your blog! I had no idea that mozzarella’s history was so interesting, or that the water buffalo was the source of the best tasting variety of this cheese. When I think about it, it’s a little strange that water buffalo in SE Asia are used as draft animals and sources of meat (in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, water buffalo meat is fairly common) but not for dairy. Of course, milk and cheese traditionally aren’t popular foods in that part of the world. Oh, and your freewheeling pasta sounds great, by the way!

  12. I can totally get into lying lazily on a barge, drifting down the river, as I nibble on cheese and fruit to my heart’s content. Where do I sign up? 😉

  13. My best ever buffalo mozzarella experience was in an unassuming neighbourhood restaurant in a little coastal town north of Rome. We hadn’t ordered any buffalo mozzarella but they brought us some anyway (they must have been so proud of it, they wanted to share the love I guess!) – and my, but it was a revelation, soft, sweet, melt-in-the-mouth. Divine.

  14. Great post again! In some regions of Turkey, there are water buffalos and the yogurt made from their milk is so famous. It is much more thicker than usual one. But I didn’t know about the cheese.

  15. […] flavour it or not, as takes your fancy. Traditionally it’s made with buffalo milk (same as buffalo mozzarella) but, for those of you not on milking terms with any buffaloes, regular cowjuice will do nicely. […]

  16. Wonderful post on one of my favourite foods! And a recipe included too! I’ll be in Italy in July for a week, so I look forward to some buffalo mozzarella…

  17. Helen, look forward to hearing about your trip to Italy, I’ll be watching for a write-up.

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