We’ve got cow, goat, and sheep on our radars when it comes to cheese. But what about that other ruminant animal?
Buffalo milk is not among the most common milks used in western cheesemaking, but it is an important source of deliciousness.
Perhaps the most famous of all buffalo milk cheeses to American audiences is Mozzarella di Bufala—“real” Italian mozzarella (everything else that we might call cow’s milk mozzarella is Fior di latte). But it is by far not the only cheese made from the milk of the majestic water buffalo.
Water buffalo are perhaps most similar to cows as dairy animals go. Water buffalo have a lower milk yield than cows, but there are more solids in water buffalo milk—which means that it takes less buffalo milk to make the same amount of cheese as cow’s milk.
For example, 11 pounds of buffalo milk will yield two pounds of cheese, whereas it takes 18 pounds of cow’s milk to make two pounds of a similar cheese (Oxford Companion to Cheese, 759).
For what it’s worth, buffalo milk is lower in cholesterol and higher in calcium than cow’s milk. That’s likely due to the higher amount of solids in the milk.
To keep the comparison going, water buffalo have a shorter lactation period than cows, spend a longer period of time pregnant than cows, and are old enough to have babies later in life than cows—but they can spend more of their lifetimes giving milk than cows.
So more time needs to be invested into producing buffalo milk than cow’s milk—which usually leads to cheese made from that milk being more expensive, because caring for an animal over a longer period of time is in itself a costly enterprise.
Globally speaking, there are two main subspecies of water buffalo: river buffalo and swamp buffalo. River buffalo make up the largest population of dairy buffalo—a population which is most prevalent in the Middle East, India, and Southeastern Europe. There are Mediterranean river buffalo, too (hence the Italian buffalo-milk cheeses), and there are even herds of water buffalo in Australia, the US, and Canada. But the largest herds of water buffalo live in India, Pakistan, and Egypt.
So why is water buffalo milk, yogurt, and cheese so rare in the US and in Europe?
Like any animal, water buffalo are better situated to some climates than they are to others. Water buffalo tend to flourish in rainier or wetter climes than in drier ones, just as goats tend to do better than cows in dry, rocky places. You can keep water buffalo alive in dry landscapes or northern climates, but they aren’t going to do as well, and their milk quality won’t be as good as it would be in a climate more like those to which they are native.
If you look at the places with the longest and most well-developed traditions of milking water buffalo, you find yourself in a region which follows the Mediterranean to the Caucasus region and the Middle East, or in Asia. (The river buffalo are situated more to the west, whereas the swamp buffalo live primarily in the east—China, Eastern Asia, the Philippines.)
For a few examples of the rich world of buffalo milk cheeses the west is missing out on, we can look to Egypt. First there’s Roumy, which is like Pecorino Romano, and then Domiati, Karish and Mish, which are all soft cheeses—which, it’s worth noting, can be made from either buffalo or cow’s milk. Other neighboring Middle Eastern water buffalo cheeses include Alghab, Alkarish, Akkawi, and Madhfor, for example.
But those of us living in the west don’t have to venture eastward just to try buffalo milk cheeses—although there’s no reason why we shouldn’t.
There’s a broad landscape of Italian buffalo milk cheeses out there beyond Mozzarella di Bufala: Accasciato, Barilotto, Caciobufala, Caciocavallo di Bufala, Moringhello di Bufala, Blu di Bufala, and Tozzetto, to name a few. There are even American buffalo milk cheeses, such as Bleating Heart’s Buff Blue and Bufarolo (which is made in Italy by the Gritti family and aged in the US by Crown Finish Caves).
One American company, Buf Creamery, uses milk from water buffalo grazing in the Andes to make yogurt, Mozzarella, Burrata, and Ricotta.
I’ve had buffalo butter (Delitia), buffalo ice cream (Double 8 Dairy), and buffalo milk in California. And I had a number of fantastic buffalo milk yogurts at the ACS conference this year. The yogurts and ice cream have been my favorites, by far—especially any iteration of blackberry buffalo milk yogurt.
If you look at buffalo milk, the color is very white, much like goat’s milk. This is because, like goats, water buffalo metabolize the beta carotene in grass, and don’t pass it out in their milk. Cows do pass on the beta carotene, which naturally gives their milk a yellowy color.
While cow’s milk typically has flavors of sweet cream, goat’s milk tastes barnyardy, and sheep’s milk is oily and fatty, buffalo milk is best described as tasting like the milk left over after you eat sugary cereal. This is an analogy I’ve borrowed from Juliana Uruburu, instructor at the Cheese School of San Francisco and retail director at Market Hall Foods—and she is 100 percent right.
If you think back to your childhood, and slurping up the milk after you ate all the Trix or Cap’n Crunch or whatever out of it, that milk tastes just like buffalo milk.
Once it’s processed into cheese or butter, the milk isn’t quite as sweet, but you do get some of those same fruity, floral notes.
When I started working at my current shop in September, I was pleased to see that we had not one, but three types of buffalo milk cheeses on the shelves. (Unfortunately they are all Italian, but that’s better than nothing.) Although the Taleggio-like Quadrello di Bufala has since been discontinued from our inventory—much to my sadness—we still carry Casatica di Bufala and the ubiquitous Mozzarella di Bufala.
Casatica di Bufala is a soft-ripened square-ish log of white, fudgy cheese with a fuzzy, but firm rind that is white and mottled with splotches of yellow Chrysosporium sulfureum mold (the same bright yellow mold you find on the outside of natural rind tommes like Tomme de Savoie). Casatica di Bufala is mild, sweet, not very salty, densely silky, and tongue-coatingly unctuous. For somebody trying water buffalo cheese for the first time, it is a nerve-calming experience to try something that seems so strange, but tastes so unassuming.
Next time you’re in a cheese shop and you see a buffalo milk cheese, please ask for a sample, and maybe buy some. The price may be a bit high, but the experience of trying the cheese will be more than worth the splurge.
And hey, that water buffalo spent a lot of its life preparing to make that milk for your cheese. So treat yo’self.