Mozzarella gone wild! California farm tames exotic animal with gourmet results


Issue Date: August 23, 2006
Jim Morris

Unless you hail from Honcut, Rackerby or Wyandotte, you may not know where Bangor, Calif. is, let alone its claim to fame. The tiny Butte County town has a population of 585, not including its most famous residents—175 water buffaloes.

This unique herd is the foundation of California's only water buffalo mozzarella farm. In fact, save for a small dairy in Vermont, it's the only such business in America.

"I think no one could have ever predicted that I would one day have this business," said company president and majority owner Hanns Michael Heick. "Earlier on, I didn't even know that water buffaloes existed."

The company name, Bubalus Bubalis, is the Latin name for the Asian River or Swamp Buffalo. The animals are common in the Philippines, China and India and are renowned for their intelligence, strong work ethic and gentle disposition.

"In Asia, most of the time when you see a buffalo depicted, they have a little child on top playing a flute," Heick said. Providing further evidence of their soft demeanor, Heick's herd sports names including Tuffy, Prima and Cleo.

Bubalus Bubalis was founded in Southern California in 1998, when Virgil Cicconi imported a small herd from Florida that originated in his native Italy. The dairy operates in Chino, San Bernardino County, with the cheese made at a plant in Gardena, Los Angeles County. Those facets of the business are ongoing, although a move north is planned.

Bubalus Bubalis purchased a defunct dairy farm in the hills of eastern Butte County that was too small to stay in that business, though it's ideal for the buffalo operation. The herd resides on 50 acres of pasture, which provides plenty of room to roam, plus large trees for shade and bathing opportunities via two small lakes.

One of the strengths of Northern California is the buffalo-friendly climate, including favorable weather and the pro-agriculture attitude of the region.

"Butte County is very intent on creating a specialty food environment and we fit right into it," Heick said. "They are very supportive and happy to see us."

The buffalo farm is part of the Sierra Oro Farm Trail, a campaign to encourage the public to visit Butte County farms and ranches and buy locally grown foods.

Another strength is the ready access to a surprising, inexpensive food source for the herd-rice straw.

"They come from rice country and are the only bovine that has an enzyme in their intestines that can break down, digest and make a profitable food from rice straw," Heick said.

Being in the midst of the world's most productive rice-growing region, Heick has easy access to the straw. The herd gobbles up 100 tons of rice straw per month.

The company goal is to make Bangor an all-encompassing site for the farmstead cheese by the end of the year. Expansion is very much in the offing. The current herd is expected to double within a few years, which in turn would double the amount of cheese produced. Production currently stands at about 150,000 pounds a year.

Customer demand is fueling the expansion. Known as mozzarella di buffala in the marketplace, this cheese has a passionate following among knowledgeable gourmets. Mozzarella cheese was identified as a rising star in the food world in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

There are six Bubalus Bubalis products, including different types of mozzarella, mascarpone and ricotta. It offers a full, fresh flavor that lactose-intolerant customers can enjoy. Their cheeses won four awards at this year's California State Fair competition, including one gold medals, two bronze medals and a best of division in the soft cheese category.

Bubalus Bubalis sells for $7.99 to $9.99 per half-pound package at specialty retail stores, including Vons Pavilion Markets in Southern California, Mill Valley Market in Mill Valley, Ferry Plaza in San Francisco and Corti Brothers in Sacramento.

Restaurants featuring the cheese include Piatti, St. Regis in San Francisco, The Ivy in Beverly Hills and the Old Yellow Garage in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

One of the biggest buffalo mozzarella fans is Jason Shaeffer, chef de cuisine of the luxurious restaurant 1500 Ocean at the iconic Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego County.

Shaeffer has visited the farm and includes its cheeses in several dishes, including appetizers and salads.

"After visiting, I can see how much everyday care they put into it all," he said. "Once you taste it, you're hooked. It's an incredible product."

The protégé of Thomas Keller of the acclaimed French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley said the buffalo cheese fits into their concept of buying local ingredients that are of the highest quality.

"People want to know the farmer—the why, how and where their name came from," Keller said. "It's all part of the dining experience now."

Heick said, "Chefs, delis and specialty stores are our keys to success. We have to get the public to understand that we produce something here in the United States that is as valuable and as good as anything we are importing."

Buffalo milk mozzarella is somewhat new to America but has a long history in Europe. The first documented water buffalo mozzarella dates back to the 12th century in Italy.

Heick's circuitous journey to Northern California only adds to the improbable mix. Born in Vienna, Austria, he spent much of his professional career as an importer-exporter. After 15 years exporting California wines, he came across the water buffalo opportunity.

His European upbringing and extensive travel had already enlightened him on the popularity of buffalo mozzarella elsewhere in the world, chiefly in Italy. Sealing the deal may have been the expertise of his Italian-born wife, Grazia Perrella, who comes from a third-generation mozzarella cheese-making family. Their partnership provides an ideal combination of modern technology and Old World artistry.

Heick said he is excited about what the future holds for this cheese.

"It's a pleasure to have people taste your product and really enjoy it," he said. "I think that's a major part of the fun—to be able to enjoy the circumstances when you produce something and also to have positive feedback from the public. You cannot ask for anything more than that!"

(Jim Morris is a reporter for Ag Alert. He may be contacted at jmorris@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.