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A Cheesemaker's Buffalo Dreams

California's Mozzarella future is in Norwalk where the water buffalo roam.

March 18, 1998|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the dispassionate observer, there is little beautiful--and certainly not lovable--about a water buffalo. It is large and hairy and has an unfortunate affection for muddy bogs.

To Virgilio Cicconi, however, the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a vision. Looking out at the grazing water buffaloes at a Dutch dairy farm in Norwalk--about a mile from Pioneer Boulevard's Little Bombay and right around the corner from what might be California's best Thai restaurant--he describes the first time he encountered the creatures with the passion of the love-struck.

"You believe in love at first sight?" he asks his Italian accent still thick after 30 years in California. "It was the 28th of April last year I went to look at them. They looked at me just like that, you know," he says, pulling a moony face and looking deeply into the eyes of one of the buffaloes, which stands on the other side of the fence, calmly chewing hay, knee-deep in muck. "I don't know, the way they're hairy or whatever. You can just tell these are really nice animals. They're intelligent."

Cicconi, barrel-chested and full of bullish energy himself at 67, calls several buffaloes by name--Blondie, Tiny, Lela--as if they were pet dogs. More like cats, it turns out. They look up at him, ponder for a moment and then go on about their business.

"This is, how can I say, this is just like you talk with somebody who is old and went three times around the world. They've had a lot of problems and they know about life. If he talks, you listen."

In all honesty, Cicconi's relationship to the water buffalo is not entirely pure-minded. You see, Cicconi's real first love--and his business--is mozzarella. And to make mozzarella, the real stuff, you've got to have water buffaloes.

And so Cicconi--the man whose Italcheese company introduced much of Southern California to fresh mozzarella, turning what was once an exotic rarity into a supermarket staple--prepares to make his next leap toward cheese immortality.

A bit of definition is necessary. The mozzarella everyone knows--that hard ball that resembles an art gum eraser--bears no more resemblance to the real thing than that stuff in the green shaker can does to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It, too, is an invention of convenience, intended to feed the pizza industry.

But you cognoscenti shouldn't be too smug. What you probably think of as real mozzarella--the white, cake-like ball of fresh cheese sold in water--isn't technically mozzarella either. Until recently, what we think of as real mozzarella had to be labeled fior di latte in Italy; it's made from cow's milk, but to be called mozzarella, the cheese had to be made from water buffalo milk.

With the dwindling of Italian water buffalo herds after World War II and the growing popularity of cow's milk mozzarella, the legal definition in Italy has been relaxed.

Regardless, until Cicconi started making fresh mozzarella at his Italcheese factory, all of this was academic. The only mozzarella you could find in a Southern California supermarket was pizza cheese.

It was in 1983, spurred on by a combination of ecological disaster and sisterly advice, that Cicconi set out to remedy Southern California's sorry mozzarella situation.

Cicconi and his brother Jerry, originally from Benedetto del Tronto on Italy's Adriatic coast, spent almost 20 years fishing for swordfish off Catalina Island. When gill-netting stripped the channel waters of swordfish, he began casting about for something to do.

"Why don't you make cheese?" asked his sister, who still lives in Italy. "The stuff I eat when I visit you tastes like soap." Just like that, Cicconi, then in his mid-50s, was a mozzarella maker.

Well, not quite that easily. Mozzarella is a tricky cheese to work. To get the curd to stretch the way it should takes a series of fairly exacting steps.

To make mozzarella from scratch, the milk is first set, using a bacterial culture that converts the lactose sugar into lactic acid, and rennet, the stuff that actually forms the curd. When the mixture solidifies into curd, it is cut into cubes, drained of its whey (which is used to make ricotta), washed with fresh water and again drained well.

When the curd has developed just the right acidity (technically, acidifying the cheese converts the dicalcium paracasein to monocalcium paracasein, changing the texture), it is heated in 180-degree water and worked by repeated pulling and stretching into a smooth, shiny ball. Then it is soaked in a brine for flavor.

On the East Coast, where it seems every little Italian enclave has a few delicatessens selling homemade fresh mozzarella, most are actually only home-finished. The vast majority of store owners buy prepared curd from one of a small group of dairies and then do the final hand-shaping in the blistering hot water themselves.

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