Anyone who has been to Italy, particularly Naples, knows that there's something special about the mozzarella di bufala made there. But what exactly is the difference? What's so special about Italian mozzarella?
The most important factor is the milk source: as the name suggests, mozzarella di bufala is made from the milk of water buffalo. This milk is rich in protein, calcium and milk fat, much more so than cows milk. This is extremely important to mozzarella, because it is a fresh cheese, meaning it is not aged like most cheeses you're familiar with (cheddar, brie, taleggio, etc). Aging is a big part of where a cheese's flavor comes from--so with an un-aged cheese like mozzarella, the milk has to do all the talking!
The other major factor involved in mozzarella is the freshness. In Naples, where mozzarella has its origins, they've been raising water buffalo for their milk for hundreds of years, and if you buy a piece of mozzarella there, chances are it was made that same day. With fresh mozz, the fresher the better.
That said, obviously, there aren't any water buffalo farms near Marblehead, and unless anyone plans on pasturing some on Gatchell's Green, we don't expect to find any nearby any time soon. So to get authentic buffalo mozzarella, we have to go outside of Massachusetts. Most buffalo mozzarella in the US is flown in from Italy, and can be had at just a few days old.
The other option is locally made cows milk mozzarella. Cows milk doesn't provide the same rich, sweet flavors of buffalo milk, and so sometimes the cheese can be somewhat bland. However, it is often (though not always!) fresher, since it spends less time in transit than the Italian one, and there are some good producers out there who make some delicious cheeses. We've been carrying Maple Brook Farms mozzarella lately and have absolutely loved their cheeses. They don't have quite the flavor of the buffalo milk cheeses, but they come awfully close!
I visited a mozzarella maker in Naples a few years ago and got to watch them make a batch of buffalo mozzarella. Here's the process.
|Start out with fresh curds in a traditional wooden barrel.|
|Add hot water. This causes the proteins in the curds to link together, making the curds combine into a thick, doughy mass. The Italians will actually refer to it as "dough."|
|They knead it a bit for consistency. Yes, this is basically a giant ball of mozzarella here.|
|They tear off a small pieces of the "dough" and rip them up into small balls of mozzarella. The word for tear in Italian is mozzare, which is where the cheese gets its name.|