From Campania with Cheese (and a Recipe!)

This past weekend, we skipped town and headed south to the Campania region, where we spent the tail end of my mom’s two-week Italian vacation alternately enjoying and escaping the intense summer sun. Our first stop: Amalfi, the teeny town that shares its name with the southern coastline of the Sorrentine Peninsula. 

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If you’re not familiar with the area, a map will show you that it looks to be just down the road from the port city of Salerno. Sit through the hour-and-a-half cliff-hugging bus ride, though, and you’ll realize that 25km isn’t that close at all, even if your driver pushes full speed ahead, oncoming traffic and hairpin turns be damned!  

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After two excellent days in the town, spent searching for shore glass, and feasting on donut peaches and puck-sized pieces of provolone grilled between lemon leaves, we left to explore the region’s other delights. For my traveling companion and I, that meant cheese

See, alongside being famed for its coast and ancient sites, the Campania region is known for being one of the best buffalo mozzarella-producing regions in Italy. Producers must meet strict standards in order to be able to label their product Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. And, come Monday morning, we saw that production in action, spending an hour touring Italy’s only organic buffalo mozzarella farm: a place where water buffalo spend their days listening to Mozart, having their shaggy black coats massaged and, when they feel like it, giving milk — just 7 litres or so per day (compared to the 30+ a cow would give). And it’s rich stuff, with about twice as much fat, lactose and vitamin content as cows’ mlik.  

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I wasn’t able to snap photos of the cheese-making process, but for those interested, it goes something like this: milk is combined with rennet to make crumbly curd, which is then fed through a machine that shreds the curd into little pieces. From there, hot water is poured over the shreds, transforming them into a big, smooth, elastic cheese pillow. Handfuls of the pillow are then pulled off and transferred to a vat of cold water, where folks knead and shape them by hand into balls of mozzarella ranging from bite-sized to a full pound in weight. Its the production process that gives the cheese it’s name — the verb mozzare means to cut.  

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The results are something incredible: creamy white, with a smooth, squeaky, elastic exterior and a creamy centre that beads with milk when it’s cut. The farm we were at produces 400kg of the stuff every day and, by noon, they’re sold out. It was only by making a cheese reservation days in advance that I was able to take some home (lucky me, the fresh stuff doesn’t require refrigeration). Back at home, you’ll find it chilling, literally, in the specialty section of your local grocery store.   

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My favourite way to enjoy the delicate flavour of buffalo mozzarella is straight up, unadulterated. But the classic Caprese salad, which may or may not get its name from the nearby island of Capri (helpful, I know), is a close second. And it’s simple stuff – just cheese, tomato, basil, olive oil, salt and no cooking whatsoever. Good news when the weather’s pushing 35 degrees.

Caprese Salad
Serves 2

Note: As with so many classic dishes, Caprese salads can be made loads of different ways. The differences can be small, dealing with presentation — some folks stack their tomato and cheese, while others fan them so that the slices of tomato and cheese are only partially overlapping; some folks leave their basil whole while others cut or tear theirs. The differences can also have to do with what makes it into the salad, some people adding garlic, onion or balsamic vinegar. The simple recipe below is based on the salad that was served up to me and my fellow students nightly when I studied in Italy back in 2007, and is similar to the salads I most often see in restaurants, but don’t hesitate to modify it so that it works better for you!

1 250g ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced into 3/4 cm slices*
1-2 large ripe tomatoes, sliced into 3/4 cm slices
6-8 large basil leaves, washed
Extra virgin olive oil

1. On a big plate, overlap cheese, tomato and basil until you’ve used up all of your ingredients. Drizzle with a healthy glug of olive oil and a good sprinkling of salt (don’t be shy with the oil!). Grab a couple of forks and salad plates and dive in!

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*If you can’t find a mozzarella that’s specifically labelled as “buffalo”, there’s a very good chance it’s made with cows’ milk, which isn’t nearly as flavourful, alas.

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