When there’s only a thin electric wire between you and a one-ton bovine named Amando, who’s sporting a ring in his nose and massive curling horns the size of a rhinoceros, one begins to appreciate what it takes to make the only Mozzarella di Bufala in Wisconsin.
The story of how Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese
began making water buffalo mozzarella this summer starts with a man name Dubi Ayalon, who three years ago, moved with his family from Israel to rural Wisconsin and bought a small farm, sight unseen. Since then, he’s put all of his effort – which is considerable – into persuading a small herd of water buffalo purchased from various herds in Vermont, California and Florida, to let him milk them.
It hasn’t been easy.
“It took three years for the milk to come,” Dubi told me when I visited him at his farm near Plain, Wis., last week. When I arrived, he was chopping wood, wearing a back brace, sporting stylish, if beat-up Dolce & Gabana eyeglasses, and pretty much covered in dirt, dust, and what I would later come to appreciate because I’d have to hose it off my own boots, water buffalo manure.
“For three years, the water buffalo ate hay and Dubi ate shit,” he said (for those of you whom have met Dubi, you know his language is a bit, ahem, “colorful”). I believed him whole-heartedly after looking at the size of the massive water buffalo in the nearby pasture and comparing it to the size of Dubi, who as a former Israeli army officer and high school principal, could no doubt hold his own against an unruly citizen or student, but who doesn’t stand much of a chance compared to a one-ton animal who goes wherever the hell it wants to go because it weighs 2,000 pounds.
For the past three years, Dubi has been beat up by water buffalo. He gently sings to them in Hebrew, luring them with grain into the barn, where they sidle up into a custom-built stanchion and then proceed to kick the crap out of him as he milks them. He says it’s worth it. For every pound of milk he lures from his seven milking water buffalo, he gets paid $1 a pound. That’s $100 for a hundredweight. Compare that to cow’s milk, which goes from between $12-22 a hundredweight, depending on the market price.
But the high-paying milk comes at a high cost. For the past three years, Dubi has worked to gain the trust of his herd, of which, there are only seven that will concede to being milked. The rest are going to market this fall, as Dubi believes he will never be able to tame them enough for milking. But there’s hope around the corner: Dubi has a pen full of yearling heifers he’s kept from the calmer cows, and inside the barn is a small group of 2-month old calves who lick his hands when he nears them.
“It’s all about gaining their trust,” Dubi says. “Water buffalo are not like cows. You can’t push them into doing what you want them to do. They have to want to do it.”
And what Dubi wants them to do is give more milk. Currently, each cow is giving about 14 pounds of milk a day. Dubi wants to increase it to 15 pounds next year, and as his heifers and calves mature, eventually grow the herd to 20 milking animals. At that point, he believes he can make a pretty good living.
So does Cheesemaker Bob Wills, who’s been buying Dubi’s water buffalo milk and crafting it into mozzarella. At 8 percent butterfat, the milk is rich and luxurious. Cow’s milk generally makes a 10:1 ratio of milk to cheese (1,000 pounds of cow’s milk would make 100 pounds of cheese). Water buffalo milk is more like 4:1.
Last week Cedar Grove Cheesemaker Ryan Meixelsberger, who’s been making cheese for 18 years, said the water buffalo milk is unlike anything he’s ever encountered. “The yield is higher. The protein and fat are both higher. Our ability to make cheese from this milk has been on a steep learning curve. It’s finicky and unpredictable, but we’re getting there.”
On the day I visited, Both Meixelsberger and his assistant, Blair Johnson – who moved from Vermont three weeks ago to help make the water buffalo cheese – had just pumped the milk into the vat from the pasteurizer, where it would wait about three hours to acidify before they cut it, stir by hand, put in paddles, and then cook and stir for another 2-3 hours, all in an attempt to try and get the acidity level to about 5.8.
While that time-intensive process sounded incredibly enticing, I decided to pass on cheesemaking for the day, and instead talked Ryan and Blair into posing with some cheese they’d made last week – beautiful mozzarella balls and a wheel of mozz. The pair make water buffalo cheese just one day a week, on Mondays, stretching some of the curd into fresh mozz balls, and then pressing the rest into blocks or hoops, where it is either shredded or sold in wedges.
Cedar Grove Cheese milk truck driver and maintenance man Dale Fingerhut, a former dairy farmer who admires the way Dubi treats his animals, picks up about 525 pounds of water buffalo milk a week from Dubi. Dale lugs it in 80-pound stainless-steel milk cans, hauls it back to the plant, and then cools it into a bulk tank until Ryan and Blair are ready to make cheese.
The entire operation, from Dubi’s farm – to Dale’s hauling – to the cheesemaking at Cedar Grove by Ryan and Blair, is a grueling, time-intensive process. The result is a cheese that sells for $13-15 a pound, and as far as I can tell, is worth every penny.
You can find Cedar Grove Water Buffalo Mozzarella in Madison at Metcalfe’s Market and Fromagination. It’s also available at Cedar Grove’s retail store at the plant just outside Plain. Other than those outlets, Cedar Grove water buffalo mozz is hard to find, as production is limited and the fresh product needs to be consumed in a timely fashion. The way I look at it, Dubi’s Mozzarella di Bufala is just one more reason to move to Wisconsin.