The Great History of Mozzarella - Daveid L. Thurmond - ebook

This book explores the history of mozzarella di bufala in Italy as well as the modern process of manufacture and the variations in form of this most exquisite and unusual of cheeses. The history of genuine mozzarella is inextricably linked to the history of the Indian buffalo in Italy, a history born of terrible suffering and disease, nurtured by human perseverance and triumph, and flowering in the invention of one of the world's most prestigious food products.

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Caserta Region

The Paestum Plain


The War on Malaria

Introduction of the Buffalo



Buffalo Milk







Packaging and Sale

Other Buffalo-milk Cheeses




Tenuta Vannulo

Il Granato

Caseificio Polito

Daveid L. Thurmond Sandra P. Thurmond


The case of Paestum

LICOSIA italics



ISBN | 9788899796211



Mozzarella is, of course, a particular form of cheese, and as such it has common characteristics of all cheeses, as well as specific traits that mark it as one of the world’s most special products.

Cheese is a processed form of milk. Milk is the only common foodstuff which nature has designed specifically as mammalian food, and it is therefore powerful human nutrition. Though milk is surpassed by other foods in specific nutrients, it is unsurpassed as a source of balanced nutrition. By itself a half-liter of cow’s milk provides about 25% of the calories, 40% of proteins, 70% of calcium and riboflavin and 35% of vitamin A and thiamine needed per day by an average five- year-old. The most critical elements of milk for an adult are its proteins, and when combined with a cereal, the amino acids in milk and cereals complement each other perfectly.

But there are serious problems with raw milk. For one thing, milk is extremely perishable. Its liquid state and neutral pH make it especially prone to spoilage and pathogenic microbes, either naturally present in the milk or introduced during handling. Milk often naturally contains human pathogens such as tuberculosis and brucellosis, for example. There is also the fact that milk sugar, lactose, is indigestible by large numbers of people above the age of 3 or 4. This is especially true among Asiatic peoples who do not have the tradition of continu

A collection of cheeses, from soft and runny to hard and granular. All capture the nutritional magic of milk in a safe, digestible form.

ous milk consumption as do many northern Europeans and therefore do not continue to produce the enzymes which allowed them to digest milk in infancy. Thus we have a food with high nutritional value but low digestibility and biological stability.

It is hardly surprising, then, that early cultures, perhaps as early as Neolithic times, discovered methods for processing milk into more stable and digestible forms which could be consumed over time. Among those products was cheese. Earliest evidence of cheesemaking comes from Mesopotamia and dates from about 7,000 BCE. Manufacture of goats’ milk cheeses was common in ancient Egypt, and cheese is frequently mentioned in the Bible. Homer speaks several times of cheeses, most notably the ewes’ milk cheeses made by the cyclops Polyphemos. The Greek historian Herodotus speaks of mares’ and asses’ milk cheeses made by the nomadic Scythians and Phrygians of his day (c. 450 BCE). And in classical Rome, cheeses were being imported from all over the Western world, from as far away as France, and were also being made in a variety of styles in many parts of Italy and even in the city itself.

But what exactly is cheese? Cheese is a solid or semi-solid substance formed from the solids of milk which have been denatured (i.e., made to form into small clumps of proteins and fats called curds) by acids and/or heat and then separated from the whey, the liquid remains of milk, by a coagulant such as rennet. Cheese is most often acidified by benevolent bacteria either naturally occurring in milk or added in the form of a ‘starter culture’. These helpful little microbes include species of Streptococcus, Leuconostoc, Pediococcus, and Lactobacillus which metabolize lactose into lactic acid. And, happily enough, different species thrive best at various temperatures ranging from 37°C, the natural temperature of milk, up to about 50°C. Thus, if the milk is heated very slowly and carefully, one colony of bacteria will begin the fermentation process and partially acidify the milk, and when these little organisms are exhausted, a colony of another species will take over.

Traditional societies use various unglazed terra cotta vessels for the purpose, and in these vessels are present the forerunners of a vigorous colony. Altemately, cheesemakers simply retain a portion of the whey from a previous successful fermentation and add this to the next day’s milkings as a ‘starter’ (inoculum).

Provided the milk is not scalded to a temperature that kills all microbes, they will continue to slowly metabolize lactic acid for many

Heating sheep's milk for cheeses in the Greek islands. Photo by Martin Brigdale from Aglaia Kremezi, The Foods of Greece (New York, 1993).

months or even several years after the cheese is made. That is why an aged cheese is tangier in taste than a fresh cheese. But early on, traditional societies discovered that they could greatly facilitate the curdling of milk by adding a coagulant, especially rennet, a substance traditionally from the stomach linings of suckling mammals. Rennet contains the lactose enzymes chymosin (formerly renin) and smaller portions of pepsin. Altemately, various botanical agents are used, such as flower of wild thistle, safflower seeds, fig tree sap (latex), or green pine nuts. After a relatively short time, often as little as half an hour, a firm gel is set, at which point the gel is cut into small pieces, and these so-called ‘curds’ float in the ‘whey’, a liquid portion containing water and leftover fats and proteins. The curds are then physically separated from the whey. The curds are often salted to promote further draining and put into a permeable container of some sort to allow more whey to drain as the solid portion begins to assume the shape we recognize as cheese. In traditional societies these little forms (the word which gives several modern words for cheeses, such as formaggio in Italian and fromage in French) are made of wicker, and the imprint of wicker on many traditional French and Italian cheeses is regarded as a sign of their artisanal origins. But today most such forms are made of plastic. After an hour or so, the form is inverted and a little ‘farmer’s cheese’ is removed, to be eaten within a week or two.

Hard cheeses are treated differently at this point. They are typically wrapped in a loosely woven cloth, cheesecloth, and placed in or under a press to force even more whey to exude (the technical term is syneresis). This is because spoilage microbes need a certain amount of moisture to survive, so a dense, dry cheese is very stable. When the desired moisture level on the inside of the cheese, the ‘paste’, has been reached, the cheese is typically removed from the press and cheesecloth and placed in a brine, a solution of salt and water.

Brining Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses. Photo by John Dominis from Giuliano Bugialli, Foods of Italy (New York, 1984).

Salt, because of its osmotic or hypertonic action, chemically ‘dries’ the exterior of the cheese so that it forms a leathery rind, which serves as an impermeable barrier to further drying of the cheese. Hard cheeses of this sort are often placed in a cool, humid storage room for several months so that their flavors can further develop.

Aging cheeses in a pantry of a Greek farmhouse. Brigdale(1993).

Parmigiano cheese, for example, is a very dense cheese which by law must be aged for at least 18 months and may be aged for up to 24 before it is sold.

But our story has to do with a soft cheese; in fact, perhaps the softest of all traditional cheeses. There is yet another way in which milk proteins can be denatured. After milk curds have been cut and syneresis has begun, when the acid reaches a level at which pH is roughly 5.2, curds can be subjected to very hot water which simultaneously sets the curd and retards further acidification by killing many of the fermentation bacteria, so that the resulting cheese has a very mild, slightly acidic taste and a soft, luxurious texture. If the curds are then physically manipulated, something almost magical happens. The micelles of the milk proteins line up and bond together and the mass of curd takes on a glossy sheen and an incredibly stretchy texture. These are the so-called pasta filata or ‘kneaded paste’ cheeses, including some of the most famous of all Italians cheeses such as provolone, scamorza, and cacciocavallo. And the queen of all pasta filata cheeses, mozzarella di bufala.

Actually, pasta filata cheeses have a long and distinguished history in Italy. The Roman agricultural writer Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (4 - c.70 CE) in his famous handbook de Rebus Rusticis speaks of ‘hand-formed cheeses (caseus manu pressus): “When the milk is only slightly curdled in the vessel and still warm, it is cut into pieces (rescinditur) and scalding water is poured over it, and then it is either shaped by hand or else pressed into a boxwood form.” Today the soft curd is allowed to drain for three hours, after which it is cut into small pieces, placed in a cauldron and immersed with scalding water. The casein is quickly denatured, the strips float to the surface of the liquid and are lifted out and stretched with wooden batons.

Mozzarella di bufala and an aged form, cacciocavallo.

Apparently Roman cheesemen had very tough hands. A cheeseman then grabs a portion of cheese, pinches off a portion, and quickly fashions it into balls, ‘pears’, ‘braids’, or ‘sausages’. The difference in ancient Roman ‘mozzarella’ and its modern descendant is that the buffalo was only barely known to the Roman, much less common, and so Roman pasta filata cheeses were made from the milk of sheep, goats, and perhaps cows. Today there are forms of ‘mozzarella’ that are made from cows’ milk, though these should strictly speaking be referred to as fior di latte, not mozzarella. But Professor Fernando La Greca of the University of Salerno informs me that an experiment has been conducted using goats’ milk of the Cilento region of southern Italy to create a modern analogue of ancient ‘mozzarella’, and that the results were quite satisfactory. But true mozzarella for the aficionado can only be mozzarella di bufala, made from the milk of the Asian buffalo, and how this came to be is a very interesting story in itself, to which we now turn.

A Note about the Authors

Our introduction to this wonderful cheese was a fortunate coincidence. Dave’s academic background is in classical philology, with a specialty in ancient technology, especially food technology. Sandy is an avid photographer. Several years ago we were lucky enough to spend the summer in Agropoli, at the southern edge of the Paestum subzone, during research for a book on ancient Roman wine. Our Italian friends introduced us to many of the best producers in the area and we fell in love with this delicious cheese. Since then we have returned for six more summers in Agropoli, during which we have explored the cheesemaking process as well as other artisinal producers. The result of that delicious ‘research’ is the book you are reading. When the text refers to ‘we’, words are likely Dave’s and the pictures are Sandy’s unless otherwise credited or from the public domain.



The Italian buffalo belongs to the family of the bovids which also includes domestic cattle, yaks, and bisons. The genus Bubulus to which it belongs includes the amee, Bubulus arnee, and its domesticated descendant, Bubulus bubulus, as well as the anoa and tamarao of Indonesia, both critically endangered at this point.

An Italian bufala and her calf.

The critically endangered tamarao of Malaysia.

The wild buffalo or amee is a large bovid which lives in herds among reeds and rushes in the marshy areas of India and Pakistan. Its favored environment is rivers, and, given the opportunity, it will spend most of its daylight hours immersed in wallows. The arnee was domesticated in remote prehistory, but even today exactly when and where are unknown. Representations of the domesticated form appear on a cylinder seal from Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley and at Ur in Iraq, dating from the third millennium BCE. It appears in China in the second millennium. The species is extremely useful for both work as a draft animal and for milk production, and has spread almost around the globe through human agency. Today it is estimated that there are some 140 million domestic buffaloes in the world.

Thai terracotta figurine of an Asian buffalo, from ca. 2300 BCE

Domestic buffaloes belong to two main groupings termed swamp and river types. The swamp buffalo is primarily the draft animal of the rice-growing regions of the Far East, while river buffaloes are centered in India and Pakistan and have been developed as dairy herds.

The skin of the swamp buffalo is grey at birth, while that of the river buffalo is typically black, though occasionally slate, brown, or faron-grey. Swamp buffaloes are heavily and stockily built, whereas their riverine cousins are lighter, have comparatively larger faces, and have dorsal ridges that extend farther back. Sexual dimorphy is also more prominent in river buffaloes.

The Asian swamp buffalo in its favorite habitat

The horns of the swamp buffalo grow outward and curve in a semicircle which is on a plane with the forehead, whereas the horns of the river buffalo grow down and back and then curve upward in a spiral. Swamp buffaloes prefer to wallow in mud, whereas river buffaloes prefer to graze in deep water. Finally, the swamp buffalo has a plaintive cry, the river buffalo a deep, resonant voice.

River buffalo cooling themselves in a river.