I was in search of a white Christmas. Not snow and reindeer, but mozzarella and buffalo…
It’s 4.30am and inside the caseificio a haze of steam hovers like a morning mist. The 3 cheese makers (there are 2 called Aziz so I’ve named them Aziz Cheese and Aziz Big. Anton is the third) are hard at work and everything moves like clockwork. All around the room are various vats of different shapes and sizes, which they are busy preparing with different concoctions: some filled with fresh buffalo milk, others with whey from the previous days’ mozzarella production, and still more with varying degrees of salted water. A tingle of excitement and anticipation courses through me. This is why I’m here – to see buffallo mozzarella production in its purest, handmade form.
Aziz Cheese, the casaro and head cheese maker, is stood over a brimming metal vat in which you could fit at least 3 people. But inside is a mix of whey and fresh milk (not people thankfully!). The liquid is being heated in preparation for the first cheese of the day – Ricotta, so named because the whey is literally re-cooked (ri-cotta. I had one of those lightbulb moments when I first realised that!). Aziz, head over the vat, is staring intently and continuously checking to see if the liquid has separated. A loud, continuous whirring sound completely takes over, as the metal element heats the milk to 90 degrees.
When Aziz Cheese flips the handle and turns off the heating element a sudden calm returns to the room. Everyone is silent. He takes a metal scoop with holes and begins to scoop off the layer of white foam which has gathered on top through the heating process. Buffalo milk has a much higher fat content than cows milk, so they have to remove this before the ricotta can be decanted. A table of plastic moulds are laid out and they begin to fill them with the soft curds of the 1st ricotta. Everyone is silent, almost as if in a state of meditation as they work. The only sound is the dripping of the whey as it pours out of the moulds and into a large bucket which collects all of the excess liquid. The smell is mesmerising, and sets my stomach rumbling in anticipation. Luckily Aziz Cheese is on hand to pass me a taste of the still hot, steaming curds. My taste buds go into overdrive – creamy, melt in the mouth, perfectly balancing savoury and sweet. It’s like the most wonderful warm milky dessert in the world!
Once all of the 1st ricotta has been ladled into the moulds, the process is repeated two more times – these are the 2nd and 3rd ricotta, and obviously the end result is less rich in flavour and therefore cheaper!
After the ricotta has been set aside to cool, the main event begins: mozzarella di bufala! Aziz Cheese tells me that after 2 days with him I’ll be able to make mozzarella. He has been working at the fattoria for 12 years, and watching him is an education, a privilege, and a pleasure! I have never enjoyed getting up at 4am in the morning so much in my life. I feel like a child at Christmas time. Luckily it is Christmas time, so it’s the best present possible.
The whole process from start to finish is fascinating, and much harder than it looks! When I arrived in Paestum I knew 2 things: it’s one of the most important archaeological sites of Magna Graecia, and it’s jam-packed full of buffalo mozzarella producers. That was as much as I knew at the beginning. Now I can fill in some of the details…
Mozzarella comes from Neapolitan dialect: mozzare (“to cut off”) and mozza (‘”cut”)
It is said that during their daily return to the monastery, the monks noticed that the milk, placed in sacks on the backs of the donkeys, heated by the sun, and shaken by the swaying movement of the animals during the uphill trip to the convent, had coagulated. Not knowing what to do for dinner they extracted the coagulation, mixed it together and broke it apart with their hands to make a sort of bread. From here mozzarella was born!
- In Campania there are about 10,000 farms that produce buffalo milk and about 5,000 cheese factories (caseificio)
- There are approximately 150,000 buffalo
- The economy in Paestum revolves around two things: Mozzarella and Archaeology!
I was definitely in the right place!
It takes 4 hours to make mozzarella, from the initial heating of the milk (to 40°C) to the shaping of the balls. As I watch the mozzarella makers at work the rest of the fattoria begins to wake up and the well oiled machine of workers rolls into action as the customers, both public and private, come thick and fast. Local restaurants and hotels have put in their orders the night before and as the patrons arrive the fresh mozzarella is being stretched, shaped, moulded, sculpted and bagged. The flavour of the mozzarella changes completely after just 1 day, and here in the south the customers want only the freshest. Anything less is considered second rate and unacceptable. In fact I was told that in the past (i’m not sure if it’s still the case) you were more likely to find fresh mozzarella in Harrods than in the north of Italy. The first batch of mozzarella is ready between 5am and 6am, and can be packed and in the air by 8am, on its way to London. That means by the afternoon there will be freshly made mozzarella stocked and on sale. In the north of Italy however it travels by road, and therefore takes longer to arrive. Money rules I guess!
There are balls and shapes of all sizes, from baby bocconcini to huge aversana weighing up to 800g. Other shapes that are often made include the treccia (plait) and a rolled mozzarella stuffed with ham or vegetables. In the shop they only sell the hand made mozzarella, but often there are orders which require the machines, which shape the balls uniformly into different sizes.
To see the process captured on camera, check out my wonderful, fully professional and error free (cough cough) videos!
The fresh smoked cheese is so far away from the factory produced, artificially flavoured shop bought stuff I used to eat in the UK (which by the way I loved!). However this was something else, a subtle flavour that infuses the cheese but doesn’t completely overpower it. In fact, I guess for many people it is almost too natural!
You can see the video here…
On my final morning I was in good spirits. During my time at the caseificio I had been watching, learning and probably annoying the hell out of Aziz Cheese, Aziz Big and Anton. However little by little, over the course of the week they warmed to me. My final task, which maybe I was given just to give me something to do and keep me out of the way, saw me elbow deep in a huge vat of cream, arms covered in fat and sticky liquid. It just made me smile even more!
My thanks to Fattoria Del Casaro, the Di Lascio family, and above all to Aziz Cheese and Aziz Big, who helped me to understand the joys of making mozzarella, and introduced me to the joys of fresh buffalo ricotta. Supermarkets eat your heart out – this is the real thing!