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COLUMN ONE

A Taste of Italy, Via Vermont

It's a high-stakes bet: Can mozzarella cheese from water buffaloes grazing in New England succeed as neighboring dairy farmers struggle?

September 22, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH WOODSTOCK, Vt. — One glorious morning, David Muller's girls were in the barn, lolling as usual on their heated waterbeds.

When Muller walked in, the girls stood up in their cozy private stalls, an impressive feat for animals the size of Ford Fiesta automobiles. Several nosed toward him. Then they backed off. Gingerly, they stepped forward once again, heads cocked so Muller could scratch between their horseshoe-shaped horns.

"They are like teenagers," Muller said of his 50 Southeast Asian water buffaloes. "They want to be friendly. But they are also kind of shy."

These gentle, warm-weather creatures -- never before domesticated in frigid New England -- surprised local skeptics when they easily weathered their first winter in Muller's unheated barn. Now producing babies along with extravagant quantities of milk, the water buffaloes are key to a bold idea with potential rewards for both Muller and a state that trades heavily on its bucolic image.

Muller plans to flood high-end restaurants and gourmet food shops with domestically produced buffalo mozzarella cheese, a product traditionally imported from Italy.

His vision of overseeing 50 water buffalo farms comes as Vermont struggles to save its dairy industry, where record low prices for cow's milk may force a third of its 1,400 dairy farms to close this year.

State officials have such confidence in Muller's concept that they awarded him a rare $1-million loan. They also dispatched the University of Vermont's top dairy scientist to help him out.

"The stakes here are very high," said University of Vermont professor Paul Kindstedt, who studies the science of cheese making. "The state is investing its prestige in this effort -- our whole image as a place where miracles can happen.

"What we value most in Vermont is agriculture-based endeavor," Kindstedt said. "With David's water buffalo, we're talking about a scale of undertaking that I think is unique."

Muller and his mozzarella have yet to prove themselves. "He has a major challenge," said Allison Hooper, head of a dairy collaborative called the Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. "Many people are going to say, 'Why should I pay top dollar for his mozzarella when I can get the real thing from Sicily?' "

Muller hopes to have Woodstock Water Buffalo mozzarella in restaurants and markets sometime this fall. Within two years, he expects to produce 4,000 pounds of buffalo mozzarella each week. The cheese will sell for about $16 a pound, he said, about the same price as mozzarella from Italy.

But even before any mozzarella has emerged from Muller's $2.5-million laboratory, the venture is starting to pay off. Woodstock Water Buffalo yogurt, an unexpected product that Muller whipped up in his kitchen, sells for $2 a pint in 200 markets from Boston to Beverly Hills. Devotees overlook the yogurt's 17% fat content, praising its clean flavor and dense consistency.

Buffalo milk contains 8% to 10% fat, more than twice the fat found in cow's milk. Genuine buffalo mozzarella has a spongy, bread-like texture. The flavor is rich but not cloying -- a taste that can stand alone or accompany other foods without overpowering them.

To assure authenticity, Muller imported mozzarella maker Vincenzo Ferraro, 36, from the Campania region of southern Italy.

Enzo, as he is known, lends an air of authority to a laboratory so immaculate that anyone who enters must wear knee-high boots and a plastic cap to ward off bacteria. He paces among stainless steel vats, instructing a trio of Vermonters in the art of turning buffalo milk into perfect orbs of rich white cheese. Around him, heads nod in comprehension -- though Enzo speaks not one word of English.

Each step is carefully calibrated. After the milk is pumped and processed, the cheese congeals in a giant caldron of brine. It is pressed by hand into balls, and gradually a thin skin appears. Consistency is critical, Enzo decrees.

Before discovering the world of water buffaloes and gourmet cheese, Muller was chief executive of Summit Technology, a Boston-based company that developed the equipment for laser eye surgery. The firm was sold three years ago, leaving Muller wealthy. He had no relationships to tie him down and an urge to try something new.

Muller shopped for property in California, Colorado, Kentucky and Florida. One weekend he drove to southern Vermont, the same area he lived in after flunking out of undergraduate school. He remembered how much he loved the area, and bought a 250-acre farm.

But there was still the problem of what to do.

Muller -- who has a doctorate in physics as well as two master's degrees, one from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school -- thought about reinventing himself as Vermont's first master vintner. He longed to be "the East Coast counterpart of all those California wine people." Then he got realistic about the weather.

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