Thursday, September 26, 2013

On Location: Quattro Portoni Caseificio Water Buffalo Dairy in Italy

Alert readers are expecting today's blog to be on Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy, and I do promise that will be coming. But it's not every day that I visit a water buffalo farm, and I can't wait to share my excitement. So here we go!

It had been three years since I last visited and wrote about Dubi Ayalon's water buffalo farm near Plain, Wisconsin, but the memory of a giant snorting bull with a ring in his nose trotting menacingly toward me was front of mind when we pulled into the Quattro Portoni Caseificio water buffalo dairy yesterday near Cologno al Serio, Italy.

Visiting a working water buffalo dairy was high on my list of to-dos when I began planning this year's Wisconsin Cheese Originals' cheese and wine tour of northern Italy. While almost all Mozzarella di Bufala is made in southern Italy as part of the Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP, there are a couple of buffalo dairies in northern Italy. We visited the farm of the Gritti family, who in 2000, decided get off the commodity milk train, sold their herd of Friesian cows that they had milked since 1982, switched to water buffalo, and added value to their farm by building a farmstead creamery.

Brothers Bruno and Alfio Gritti, along with their wives, Elena and Marina, and their beautiful daughters - two in graduate school to become doctors, and the third to be a lawyer - today make their own cheese and yogurt from water buffalo milk and operate an on-farm retail store. Bruno is the cheesemaker and Alfio is the herdsman, but the whole family is involved either through marketing, sales or just doing chores. The entire family was on hand to enthusiastically give us a spectacular tour of their family farm, followed by a tasting of nearly a dozen cheeses they make on site.

First of all, let me just say that water buffalo are not necessarily attractive creatures. They naturally look a little mean, and because they have lightening-quick reflexes, their sudden movements can make you think are going to trample and eat you. This of course is not the case, not only because they are herbivores, but also because the genetics of breeding calm, gentle water buffalo has been underway in Italy for hundreds of years.

The Gritti family has 900 water buffalo and milk the cows, which live in large freestall barns, twice a day in a double-15 parlor. Each cow gives, on average, about 7 liters, or almost two gallons of milk a day. This is incredibly low compared to Holstein cows, who think nothing of pumping out six to nine gallons a day. Water buffalo, however, live and give milk longer than the average U.S. dairy cow, with the Gritti's buffalo averaging 10 to 12 lactations (they just sold a cow last week that was a whopping 21 years of age). Cows must get pregnant to give milk, and in the dairy industry, we measure a cow's life span by how often they get pregnant. So that means the average water buffalo on the Gritti farm gives birth to 10 to 12 calves over the course of 10 to 12 years (their gestation period is 10 months). This is far longer than the average U.S. Holstein cow who lives to perhaps see four lactations in her productive lifetime.

We were lucky to see an hour-old newborn calf while at the farm. It stood for the first time while we were watching, and as we were cheering, promptly teetered on its new-found legs and fell down. We left it to bond with its mother and aunts (the buffalo are left to give birth in small groups of cows to calm them) and walked to the calf pens, where calves are kept until they are about one week old and are bottle-fed with buckets. After one week, they move to another pen, and learn how to eat corn and grain on their own. That takes about another 3 weeks. They are then moved in groups to larger pens, and gradually moved to successive pens as they age. The males are sold at 14 months for meat, and desirable females are kept as heifers to breed and give birth when they are two years old. The Gritti family uses both bulls and artificial insemination to impregnate the cows.

Anyone who has been on a dairy farm knows there are two main outputs to cows: milk and manure. In this case, the manure is hauled to a local, cooperative manure digestor, where the methane is converted into electricity. Meanwhile, the milk is pumped via an underground pipeline to the cheese plant and creamery across the road. There, all of the farm's milk - 500,000 liters, or more than 1 million pounds a years - is transformed into an array of award-winning buffalo milk cheeses and yogurt.

Bruno explained to us that he did not necessarily grow up wanting to become a cheesemaker, but he is the kind of man who likes a challenge, and isn't afraid to try something new. After the family decided to move forward with water buffalo, he went back to school and took a short course in Lombardy in cheesemaking. He then partnered with a cheese technician from Piedmont for six months, working on cheese recipes and to perfect the cheesemaking process.

Then he hired two young men who had just graduated from university in Milan with degrees in dairy science and trained them to be his full-time cheesemakers. In Italy, teenagers can go to a special high school to learn practical cheesemaking skills, but Bruno was not interested in hiring someone with experience.

"I was looking for someone with a virgin mind when it came to making cheese," Bruno said. "We were doing something completely different here, and I wanted someone who could think differently." The plan worked, as the two men are still on board as full-time cheesemakers, and the farm now has an employee roster of 12 people.

Because the farm is located outside the official Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP region, the Grittis make only enough fresh mozzarella to sell locally. What they really focus on is creating aged cheeses from buffalo milk that are traditionally made with cow's milk. Their most famous cheese is Blu di Bufala, which won the Best Italian Cheese award at the 2012 World Cheese Awards. A blue-veined cheese with square shape and a dry and wrinkly crust, it is mild and creamy, showcasing the natural sweetness of water buffalo milk.

Another well-known cheese is Quadrello, a soft cheese, made according to the local Bergamo region's traditional recipe for washed-rind cheese. The paste is straw-yellow in color, with small holes, elastic and soft especially near the crust. The Grittis also makes Crescenza, Ricotta, Caciocavvalo, Scamorza and a wide variety of what we usually think to be cow's milk cheeses using water buffalo milk. Aging takes place in modern, above-ground, temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms.

All but one cheese, Granbu, a semi-hard cheese made in a tall wheel that is similar in texture and flavor to the Swiss Sbrinz, are made using pasteurized milk. Sixty percent of the cheese production is exported, primarily to Germany, France and Singapore. About 25 percent is exported to the United States, where it is distributed exclusively through Forever Cheese in New York. Many of Quattro Portoni Caseificio cheeses are available in Whole Foods stores in Chicago.

Many thanks to the entire Gritti family for their amazing hospitality, tour and tasting! And tomorrow - I promise - a look inside the underground Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves.

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

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