(Published by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on March 6, 2014.)
Joan Jett sounds like a barking seal as she bellows at her son, Roy Orbison, hoping to keep him out of trouble. The 40-pound baby is adorable now but if he’s lucky, he’ll eventually take on the tall, dark Mediterranean looks of his dad, Van Morrison, rather than end up like Elvis or Neil Young — turned into steers.
It’s another idyllic day in the rolling, green West Marin countryside among Craig Ramini’s herd of 33 water buffalo named after aging rock stars. The reinvented dairyman is now firing on all cylinders after spending years in a trial-and-error period of learning how to raise these horned beasts, milk them and produce mozzarella di bufala as luscious as his Italian model.
Ramini chucked his successful software career in 2009 for a crusade aimed at doing what few Americans have mastered: produce snow-white, pillowy soft buffalo mozzarella with its richer-than-cows-milk flavor and subtle tang.
But he struggled. Just learning how to milk the lactating females in his “borderline feral” starter herd was difficult. “I had uncooperative animals,” he recalls. “I’m asking them to come into a building and stand still and get handled in their private parts. They were like, ‘What?!'”
Educated by trips to water buffalo dairies in Canada and Australia, Ramini built a custom milking stand that eventually helped him get enough high-fat, lower-cholesterol milk to start making cheese. Unfortunately, his early results were so disappointing that he donated them to a local pig farmer. “I hope I get some prosciutto from it,” he says wistfully.
Ramini made progress after visits to two Italian producers except for the biggest challenge: untangling the softness conundrum. “I don’t have words for how difficult it was,” he relates. “To make soft, luscious cheese instead of hard-as-a-pencil-eraser cheese. Then, it dawns on you; I need to get these 10 things just right.”
Today, his milking herd “is in a deep groove,” he says, and there’s a waiting list among the regional chefs who comprise most of his customers. They include serious-minded Italian cuisine masters like Craig Stoll of the Delfina empire, John Franchetti of the Rosso group and Louise Franz from San Anselmo’s Pizzalina.
According to Franz, “Because it’s local and delivered fresh, the flavor is incredible. You can almost taste the grasses the water buffalo feed upon.”
Besides the requisite Neapolitan pizza, Franz serves Ramini’s cheese in creations like a sweet-tart winter caprese using citrus rather than tomatoes and whips up appealing bruschetta starters featuring the creamy cheese.
Ramini says his cheese “is best eaten within 72 hours” and should be the star of simple preparations. Some chefs even offer it solo, he notes. “There’s this experience of biting into a fresh ball of mozzarella. The juice dribbles down your chin like a fresh peach.”
Ramini believes he is currently the country’s only farmstead buffalo mozzarella operation because the economics are fierce in a business that involves low-production animals and tricky cheesemaking techniques.
Applying lessons learned in the business world, he earns more by not selling through distributors. Besides his list of blue-chip Italian restaurants, his cheese has limited availability through retailers including Paradise Foods in Ramini’s hometown of Tiburon and later in the year, Dean & Deluca in St. Helena.
It can also be experienced during Saturday tasting tours at his operation outside Tomales, to which guests bring picnic supplies and can attempt to rub the tummy of a baby buffalo.
Now barely in the black, Ramini says he isn’t the usual “hobby farmer or winemaker who just writes checks. I’m as hands on as you can imagine. Literally. The v-seam on the back of the (mozzarella) ball is in the shape of my hand.”
- Saturday tours and tastings at Ramini Mozzarella are by appointment and cost $20 per person. Information available at http://www.raminimozzarella.com/