The name 'Mozzarella' comes from the Italian verb 'mozzare' which means to cut off. This traditional technique is part of the 'pasta filata' method which is used for stretched-curd cheeses. To begin the process, the milk is collected and stored in large steel containers. The fresh milk is slowly warmed and curdled using rennet, then allowed to rest for an hour before the curds are cut into pieces and the whey is drained off. The curds are then left to rest for a number of hours. After this time the curds are steeped in a bath of very hot whey or water for some hours (for Mozzarella di Bufala Campania this must be 95°C or 203°F).
As the curds begin to float they are removed from the liquid and left in a hoop until the pH is around 5.2 – 5.5. This is the point when the cheese can be stretched and kneaded by hand until the required soft and elastic texture is reached. A 'rubbery' texture is not satisfactory as the texture should be softer. Small pieces are finally chopped from the larger mass of cheese and shaped into individual balls. A long length of mozzarella can also be created which is then formed into a large plait. This plait is called 'treccia'.
Mozzarella is generally white but can also vary to slightly yellow in colour, depending on what diet the animal has had. Because of its high moisture content, mozzarella is a semi-soft cheese which should be consumed within a few days of production, depending on the size of the cheese. Smaller balls of cheese should be consumed fresh or the next day, whereas larger balls are best enjoyed roughly two or three days after production. Buffalo mozzarella can be naturally preserved slightly longer than cow's milk mozzarella because of high peroxidase activity (a family of enzymes). Once produced, mozzarella should be stored in brine at room temperature to retain its full flavour. Using buffalo milk in the production of mozzarella gives the cheese a very unique flavour. Buffalo milk has a higher fat content when compared to cow's milk which gives the cheese a richer, creamier taste.
Low-moisture, packaged mozzarella can be kept and refrigerated for up to a month. You can even purchase some shredded low-moisture mozzarella that has a shelf life of up to six months. Venturing away from the traditional Mozzarella di Bufala Campania, mozzarella is also available 'affumicata' (smoked) or stuffed, the latter version featuring olives, ham or cheese. No matter what mozzarella you find, it will be a great addition to most types of pizza, many pasta dishes, or a simple 'insalata caprese' (served with sliced tomatoes and basil).
Although buffalo mozzarella is a well-known part of Italian culture, the history behind the water buffalo in Italy is more controversial. Cheese products made from water buffalo milk appeared for the first time at the beginning of the twelfth century but it wasn't until the eighteenth century that these products became widespread. One theory of the origin of the water buffalo in Italy is that they were brought over from India in the seventh century. They could have also been brought over in the Middle Ages by a series of invaders ranging from the Greeks to the Normans. The Consorzio per la Tutela mentions fossil evidence suggesting that the European water buffalo, Bubalus murrensis, may have even originated in Italy. Whatever their origin, the buffalo was a familiar sight in the countryside of ancient times. It was widely used as a draught animal in ploughing dense and watery terrains because of its strength and the size of its hooves which do not sink too deeply into moist soils.
The production of buffalo mozzarella was briefly interrupted during the Second World War, as retreating German troops slaughtered the area's water buffalo herds. However it recommenced a few years after the armistice was signed. Today it can be enjoyed all over the world with producers in Brazil, Canada, Switzerland, Australia, India, United States, Mexico, Japan, Venezuela, Argentina, United Kingdom, Spain, Columbia, Thailand, Israel, Egypt and South Africa, all using milk from their own herd of water buffalo.
Written by Jacqui Capek
© Understanding Italy 2014
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