That must have been one heck of a bite of cheese.
David DiLoreto, a family physician in Salisbury, and his wife, Faythe, were on vacation with their family about five years ago when it happened:
Their first taste of mozzarella di bufala, the real mozzarella, made the way Italian cheesemakers have made it for hundreds of years, using milk from Asian water buffalo descended from ones that historians believe were brought by the Romans to farm rice fields.
“It’s the flavor,” DiLoreto says today. “How do you describe it? Mild, but afterward, you get a sweet milk taste in your mouth.”
For cheese fans, there’s nothing quite like Italy’s buffalo mozzarella. And there’s not much like it at all in the United States: It’s a fresh cheese, meant to be eaten within a few days, so it doesn’t import well. Most people who go to Italy return craving it, but there’s not much they can do.
And then, there are the DiLoretos. They went, they ate, they came home, they craved. So they started a water-buffalo ranch and dairy, Fading D Farm.
“Kind of as a lark, we said, ‘We should just raise our own,’” David says. In their mid-50s, their three kids are grown and they already had land, 64 acres about 40 miles north of Charlotte. They had raised chickens and horses. How hard could buffalo be?
“The undertaking of buffalo milk and making cheeses is pretty huge,” says Rachel Klebaur, the owner of Orrman’s Cheese Shops in Charlotte and Raleigh. “Buffalo are not easy to work with. They’re moody, the (milk) output is limited. It’s more of a challenge than working with sheep or a goat.”
If the DiLoretos’ gamble pays off, it could be big: Fading D is the first buffalo dairy in North Carolina and one of only a half-dozen nationwide.
“There’s a huge market,” says Klebaur. “We have so many customers asking for mozzarella di bufala. If we could get a fresh mozzarella di bufala that’s made and eaten two to three days after it’s made, that would be incredible.”
Milking it for all they’re worth
Work starts early at Fading D, tucked behind a small subdivision outside Salisbury. Before 8 on a foggy morning, herd manager Joy McCune is walking the last three “girls” across the spring mud into the milking parlor, where they get spent grain from a local brewery to lure them up on a platform to get attached to milking machines.
The girls are huge: A grown female water buffalo weighs about a ton. Both males and females have elaborately curving horns that can grow several feet long. And they’re picky: They don’t like strangers. Visitors have to watch through a window or the buffalo may not give milk at all.
For all that, you don’t get much milk. A cow gives 6 to 8 gallons a day. A water buffalo gives about 1 1/2 gallons. With a herd of 45 buffalo, 18 of them milking females, they get about 150 gallons a week, a spit in the milk bucket.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Really? Why are you doing this?’ ” says Faythe.
Here’s why: It’s really good milk. Buffalo milk is 8 percent butterfat, compared to 3 to 5 percent for most cows. It’s higher in simple sugars with protein that’s easier to digest. It’s noticeably thicker and sweeter.
Faythe describes it as “like drinking a melted milkshake.”
You can also do a lot with it. It makes fantastic butter and yogurt, and all kinds of cheeses, not just fresh mozzarella.
The DiLoretos’ first hurdle was just getting the animals. They’re still rare in America, yet they found their first six in Asheville. Herd manager McCune was the real find. A fan of rare animals with a dairy science degree, she was keeping a small herd in Ohio. She brought her animals to join the DiLoretos, along with eight years’ experience handling them.
“That’s hard to find,” Faythe says. “It’s not a common thing to find experience in.”
Learning to make cheese is easy enough, until you throw in variables like a different kind of milk, a different kind of animal, and recipes that may not be in English. The DiLoretos worked with N.C. Department of Agriculture inspectors to design their facility and got their license in January. First, though, Faythe spent two years learning cheese.
She went to a school in New England and did a cheese tour of Italy. Still, she had a lot of bad cheese to feed a friend’s pigs (he also gets their spent whey). To get the mozzarella curds to stretch, to get the pH balance right – it took a lot of trial and error.
Along the way, they developed other cheeses. Their version of Tallegio is Sapore, a washed-rind cheese that ages for 90 days (they’re experimenting with aging it longer, until it gets a creamy texture like brie). Roco, named for Rowan County, is an aged mozzarella that’s similar to provolone; Bel is mild and buttery. They also make ricotta, spreadable pograsso and Bufeta, a buffalo feta.
Making cheese is endless labor. Besides caring for and milking animals, it takes hours to pasteurize 75 gallons of milk (under American rules, all fresh cheeses must be aged at least 60 days or made with pasteurized milk), then add rennet and cultures to set it, cut it into curds and fill the molds.
While David helps – he’s mostly retired, although he still practices at a free clinic – Faythe’s real assistant is Julie Wheeler, 25. The DiLoretos have ties to a mission in Nigeria, where their daughter Chelsea is married to Julie’s brother. When Julie was 21, an injection got infected with flesh-eating bacteria in Nigeria. She came to Canada for care and eventually lost her left hand.
A few months ago, she came to work for the DiLoretos. All she knew about cheese was that she liked eating it. But she loves to clean, and a lot of cheese-making is cleaning. While she has a prosthetic hand, she doesn’t wear it in the cheese room, and she has become adept with the equipment.
“Nothing slows her down,” says Faythe. “She can even stretch mozzarella. If she had both hands, I couldn’t keep up with her.”
Working in the cheese room in their hair nets, they can watch the buffalo in a field nearby. The animals look a bit like elephants with their sturdy haunches and tasseled tails. As they grow older, they lose some of their body hair and develop more of a hide, although those swooping horns are still crowned with elaborate pompadours. The girls get cheese names – Mozzie, Rella, Brie, Queso.
The males get meat names, like Stew. “So they’ll know their goal,” Faythe jokes: They also sell buffalo meat, popular because it’s lean and lower in cholesterol than beef.
Clearing the hurdles
Can a farm in Salisbury become a force in the country’s hunger for buffalo cheeses? Rachel Klebaur is hopeful. She carries Fading D’s Bel in her shop.
“The flavor of the cheese is good,” she says. “There’s a lot of promise.”
Mozzarella, though, is tougher to perfect than other cheeses. Nationally known chef Paul Bartolotta, an expert in Italian products who lives part of the year in Florence, is obsessed with mozzarella di bufala. The best, he says, is rich with a delicate flavor, and it oozes cream.
Fading D’s version is tasty, with a sweet, clean flavor, but the texture is firmer and dryer. If they can perfect it, though, Bartolotta says chefs all over the country would rejoice.
“In the world of cheese, she’s embarking on something amazing,” he says.
The DiLoretos face other obstacles, too. The low milk output makes buffalo products expensive, and the animals are hard to handle.
In February, the Washington Post wrote about Mulberry Farm, another buffalo farm tackling fresh mozzarella just over the state line in Stuart, Va. Just as the story came out, Mulberry stopped making cheese. Owners David and Liisa Wallace have young sons and got overwhelmed by the work, and then David was badly hurt milking a buffalo.
“We decided this isn’t the lifestyle we wanted,” Wallace told The Observer. “It’s incredibly intensive. To make mozzarella, I’m convinced it’s magic, not science.”
For now, Faythe and David just hope to break even. They sell their cheeses at several farmers markets around Salisbury, and added the Davidson Farmers Market on April 2. Their fresh mozzarella is $24.75 a pound, compared with $9.99 a pound for the supermarket version made with cow’s milk.
The name Fading D has double-meaning: David’s nickname is Dr. D, and if you say “Faythe and DD,” it sounds like “Fading D.” But they also want this to be their retirement job – “fading off into the sunset as we get older,” says David.
Faythe, who’s working 13-hour days, gives him a wry look.
“Yeah, we’re not fading anywhere for a while.”
Know your water buffalo
Buffalo vs. bison: Western settlers called bison “buffalo” because they looked a little like the water buffalo already known in Europe. But American bison are shaggy with humped shoulders and short, curving horns. while water buffalo are longer and more rotund. Both are bovines, but they each belong to a different genus.
Buffalo vs. buffalo: Cape buffalo come from Africa and water buffalo come from Asia, probably originating in India. Water buffalo are larger and better adapted to water, while cape buffalo prefer grasslands.
Why a buffalo: Water buffalo are prized as farm animals in wet, swampy areas, such as rice fields. They have wide hooves and flexible feet that keep them from sinking in mud. Those curved horns let them pull up aquatic vegetation to eat, although they also eat hay, grass and grain.
Buffalo history: For years, water buffalo were believed to be unknown in North America. But rediscovered historical records have confirmed that water buffalo from Indonesia were imported to Middleton Plantation near Charleston in the late 1700s to work in the rice fields. Most were killed for meat by Northern troops during the Civil War, although several ended up in the Central Park Zoo.
What do you do with it?
At the New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park in January, one of my dessert courses was a chocolate quiz: We got four bars of Mast Brothers milk chocolate and had to guess which was made with which milk – cow, goat, sheep or buffalo.
I got cow and goat easily. But I mixed up sheep and buffalo because I guessed buffalo milk would be the strongest tasting. Now that I’ve been to Fading D Farm, I know that water buffalo milk is mild and sweet.
How do you use buffalo-milk cheeses? The same as any other cheese. While the mozzarella is the most famous, many cheeses can be made with buffalo milk. Try a few of Fading D’s this way:
Mozzarella: Slice in circles and place on pizza on top of the sauce. Or use it in caprese salad: Overlap circles with slices of tomato, strew with shredded basil leaves and drizzle with olive oil.
Bel and Roco: Both are firmer, with mild flavors. They grate well, for using in pasta dishes.
Sapore: Their version of Taleggio, it’s brined cheese with a washed rind that’s aged for 90 days or longer. It’s sharper and would be perfect in a pasta dish with wild mushrooms.
Fading D Farm
Find it: They sell cheeses on Saturdays at the Salisbury and Davidson farmers markets and the Peachtree Farmers Market in Bermuda Run. Cheeses also are available at the Salisbury Wine Shop and at Orrman’s Cheese Shop in the 7th Street Market in Charlotte.
Prices: $18.75 a pound for fresh ricotta, $23.50 a pound for aged cheese (Sapore, Bel and Roco), and $24.75 a pound for fresh mozzarella.