CAPACCIO, Italy — In the Middle Ages, Neapolitan monks offered fresh buffalo cheese to pilgrims visiting the monastery. Later, the word "mozzarella" would show up in a menu for the Pope dating from 1570.
Today, in the southern region of Campania, buffalo mozzarella is easy to come by and represents a multi-billion-dollar industry. Unlike the processed cow-milk cheese that strings from our pizza, these milky balls are slowly processed for hours until they become a natural concentration of fat, protein, minerals and flavors.
"I always say mozzarella has 99 flavors," said Antonio Palmieri, a mozzarella producer from Campania. "You can taste those flavors from the milk itself, without having to add anything, neither salt nor oil."
His purist philosophy has made him a millionaire. Insistent on making the perfect buffalo mozzarella, Palmieri has transformed his organic farm into a kind of free-range buffalo resort, with neither the smell nor look of a typical buffalo farm.
Palmieri likes to break boundaries. After spending years perfecting his organic mozzarella, he invented the first-ever buffalo-milk-based yogurt and gelato. This has made his customers uncommonly loyal.
On a recent summer day, I tasted the apricot yogurt on a spongy brioche, followed by a creamy hazelnut gelato. As I stood at the bar, the slender and tall Palmieri walked in wearing a white Panama hat, and sipped his coffee under a heavy gray moustache. Star-struck customers rushed to greet him, yelling, "complimenti, complimenti," Italian for congratulations.
"Naively, people think good mozzarella is born from the hands of a skilled cheese maker," said Palmieri. "That too, but most of all it comes from quality milk."
At the Vannulo Farm, which Palmieri's family has owned for three generations, tradition has never gotten in the way of innovative thinking. Last year they applied Swedish technology, invented for milking cows, to the sturdy, but much friendlier water buffalo.
Operated by computerized machines, the milking stations allow buffalos to be milked at their convenience. Like pudgy ladies waiting in line to deposit at the bank, female buffalos wait for their turn at each of the milking stations. Every buffalo wears a chip around her neck that contains personal information and an exact map of her teat.
Palmieri gives the cows three months per year to graze in an open field, socializing, bathing in a communal pool and not giving milk When they are lactating, the cows can relax at the massage parlor inside the stable, and when they get sick, homeopathic remedies wait for them at the infirmary.
"I think a buffalo is smarter than a cow," said Palmieri. "The smarter you are the more you seek freedom, and that applies to human beings as well."
I wondered what he thought about the buffalo mozzarella giants next door, united under one brand, the Association of Buffalo Mozzarella Campana (MBC). Unlike Palmieri's Vannulo label, the MBC brand is protected under the DOP label, which guarantees that all buffalo milk used for mozzarella production comes from the region, and is collected only from certified members.
As a result, all members must abide by a set of rules, equal distribution guidelines and focus production on the national and international market.
"Our purpose is to bring value to the product not distribute locally," said Domenico Raimondo, MBC Vice President.
In the mass distribution of buffalo mozzarella Campana wholesale buyers pay $6 a pound, Italian customers pay twice as much, and in New York delis, mozzarella fans can pay up to $20 a pound.
Palmieri's idea has been to abandon the group's DOP label, create his own organic brand, and eliminate the distribution chain by going hyper-local.
He breeds his own buffaloes, makes his own cheese — only 660 pounds a day, refusing to make more — and sells it for $8 a pound only on his farm. To the Association's chagrin, he's proven that flying solo is not only possible but also lucrative.
Palmieri has placed his buffalo mozzarella at the center of a 360-degree milk revolution, which has reached high palates, such as those of U.S. President Barack Obama and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who ate the prized cheese on separate occasions.
Throughout the morning at the Vannulo Farm, crowds of tourists from all over the world tour the grounds, watching the lounging buffaloes and tasting warm chunks of freshly made cheese. "I have seen some," said Palmieri's daughter, Teresa, "so disoriented by the milky juices of our mozzarella that they spit it out."
While some foreigners try to overcome the shock, local customers rush in and out of the cheese shop with buffalo-printed bags carrying mozzarella balls swimming in whey brine.
"I always say that you are never done making a high-quality product," said Palmieri. "Because the moment you think you are done, you make a major mistake."
Next stop, buffalo chocolate.