My grandparents regularly outfoxed the U.S.D.A. when re-entering the States: they smuggled their native cheese from Umbrian mountain country. Upon arrival, they would move the precious cheese, with its fetid bouquet, to their cool basement for ripening. To get Christmas lights or more Sprite, I would descend into the cheese crypt, the rinds hanging like fragrant contortionists.
My appreciation for cheese, then, is spurred by a sense of adventure and informed by the death drive. Today an ode to the cheese I love, and my namesake: mozzarella.
Mozzarella is the diminutive form of “mozza” or the general term for “cheese,” but it derives from the verb “mozzare” which loosely translates to “to cut off” or “to dock.” In Italy mozzarella is made only from buffalo milk—if made from cow’s milk the cheese is “fior di latte” or “flower of the milk.” While it is often found as a large lump floating in salt water, one can also purchase bocconcini (small mouthfuls) or ciliegini (little cherries).
A short historical sketch: while some attribute the provenance of water buffaloes in Italy to the Visigoths, others believe Marc Anthony brought the animal from Egypt and sent it, with a recipe for bufala mozzarella, to Caesar as a gift. Much much later, when Hitler’s armies retreated, they destroyed Italy’s entire water buffalo population. Italy was forced to grovel and order more from India.
To see first hand how the cheese is made, I consulted the Italian specialty store Pasdeli, which agreed to let me join the mozzarella creation ritual. On the weekends, John, the owner, makes 5lbs of fresh mozzarella a day. He starts with bricks of whole cow’s milk curd, a large silver bowl, two colanders, and a custom-design water heating system.
When I come in, he has already begun the “pasta filata” process: the bricks are soaking in a large silver bowl. The initial bath of warm, unsalted water breaks up the logs of curd and loosens the milk proteins. With a custom-designed water heating system, he rinses the bricks in warm, then hot water over a colander, returning the cracked curd bits to the larger bowl.
After heating it twice, John’s hands begin to mold the curd into something more solid and smooth, ironing out the curd’s pocketed surface. He then begins to twist the cheese, bringing air into it, and breaking chunks from the mothership that remains in the bowl. With the portion he broke off, he tucks the chunk into a sphere, or “makes a face” with it, and dips it back into the water to smooth it and form a skin on the surface.
The newly-formed globes rest in cold water to stop the cooking process, then soak in salt water for flavor—salt is added last and not first because it renders the curd too sticky to work with. After their salt bath, John wraps the balls in plastic, and seals snuggly to get the air out. Air will make fresh mozzarella turn slightly yellow, says John, and it looks better when it’s wrapped in plastic. If you buy mozzarella that is a little yellowed at the edges, it may mean that it’s made fresh, not necessarily that it’s past its prime.
He is right that mozzarella is attractive—the final result is a tray of glossy, malleable pearls.
As satisfying as it is, however, cow’s milk mozzarella does not feature the soft, spongy, rustic disposition of the water buffalo. The next objective: how to procure the best bufala “mozzarel” in New York.