If mozzarella di bufala has been your only experience of water-buffalo cheese, you have homework to do. Of course that’s where most of us started—swapping out cow’s-milk mozzarella in our tomato salad for the more gamy and exotic bufala. Then came burrata di bufala with that luscious cream filling. Could cheese get any sexier?
Bufala cheeses are the trend of the year, in my estimation. And producers are exploring every style: bloomy rinds and washed rinds, ricotta, aged tommes and blues. The milk is exceptionally high in fat and, until recent times, went almost exclusively into mozzarella. Cheesemakers are still trying to figure out what else it can do.
“I feel like it all started with Quattro Portoni,” says Andy Lax of Fresca Italia, a Bay Area-based importer and distributor. I wrote about this pioneering Lombardy producer of bufala cheeses several years ago for Culture magazine ("Betting on Bufala") and have watched its business bloom in the U.S. ever since.
Click on the water-buffalo image below to download the story about how bufala cheese saved this small family farm.
Now Quattro Portoni has a new competitor in La Maremmana. This Tuscan enterprise has been raising bufala in the Maremma region of Tuscany since the 1980s but only began making cheese three years ago. Fresca Italia owner Michele Lanza discovered the cheeses at the giant Slow Food exposition in Bra last fall, walking the aisles and tasting. “You come home with all these business cards and think ‘Which was this one?’” says Lax, “but La Maremmana stood out.”
Lanza showcased some of the cheeses at his booth at the San Francisco Fancy Food Show early this year, and retailers raved. Then came the grunt work, all the i-dotting and t-crossing required to get a new exporter past the FDA. By May, I was buying La Maremmana’s Grossetano (pictured above) at Market Hall Foods in Oakland. And I have purchased it several times since.
Made with pasteurized milk from the farm’s herd, Grossetano (Gro-seh-TAH-no) debuted about two years ago. Although inspired by a Piemonte cheese, La Maremmana’s cheesemaker has adapted the recipe enough to consider it unique. Named for the nearby town of Grosseto, the wheels weigh about 14 pounds and are matured for three to four months, giving them a thin, hard, slightly damp natural rind with a handsome cloak of microbes. The interior is firm, pale and brittle.
Grossetano strikes me as a choice for an adventuresome palate. The flavor is tart, highly savory and gamy—like a lemony lamb chop. Some samples have had a faint smoky note, although the cheese is not smoked. There’s an intriguing wildness to it that I can’t quite define. It is salty but not too salty, concentrated but not strong, with a tangy finish. A couple of times I thought the cheese had a slightly stale or oxidized taste, like it had been in plastic wrap too long. Shaving the surface with a cheese plane usually eliminates this taste, but it didn’t. I don’t find the flavor every time, so perhaps it emerges in transit or storage.
Is the excitement around bufala cheeses going to last or fade? “Hard to say,” says Lax. “But restaurants and retailers are all asking me, ‘What do you have in buffalo milk?’”
Cabernet Sauvignon is a great match for Grossetano, but any big red wine should do. Look for Grossetano at Cheese Shop of Carmel; Woodlands Market in Kentfield; Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa; Market Hall Foods in Oakland; Oliver’s Market (Montecito and Stony Point); Petaluma Market; Rainbow Grocery and Union Larder in San Francisco; and Sunshine Foods in St. Helena.