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Where the Bufala Roam

Five years in the making, Double 8 Dairy’s mozzarella di bufala is now a glorious reality.

SLIDESHOW

One of the 100 water buffalo who call Petaluma’s Double 8 Dairy home.

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Making water buffalo mozzarella.

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Curtis Fjelstul surveys the ranch.

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Francesco Ruocco works some curds.

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In January, after five long years of trial, error, and more trial, Andrew Zlot’s bovid dreams finally became a reality. That’s when Zlot, the owner of Petaluma’s Double 8 Dairy, did what only one other dairy farmer in Northern California had managed to do: He started producing balls of water buffalo mozzarella, a cheese that is as ethereal as it is fiendishly challenging to make. Zlot’s water buffalo gelato is already beloved around the Bay, and local restaurants buy his milk to use in butter and their own gelato. But, Zlot says, “they’ve really just been waiting for the mozzarella.”

When Zlot, a former asset manager, opened Double 8 in 2012, he’d long been scouting for an artisan cheese he could turn into an edible enterprise. Water buffalo mozzarella topped his list—as he told the audience of a cheese-making panel he sat on last year, it’s a cheese “that everyone enjoys but nobody makes in America.”

But, as he quickly learned, mozzarella di bufala is not for dabblers. “It turns out it’s difficult to make a good batch of mozzarella and easy to make a bad one,” Zlot says. To begin with, water buffalo can be shy producers. Whereas a cow can produce 4 to 5 gallons of milk in 5 minutes, it can take more than 10 minutes of milking to produce just 2 gallons of water buffalo milk. And the cheese itself is temperamental. The consulting cheese makers Zlot hired blamed his unappealingly chewy early results on everything from the milk’s fat-to-protein ratio to the weather. He now suspects that the problem lay elsewhere: None of those experts had worked with buffalo milk, so they weren’t familiar with its composition.

Zlot began exploring mozzarella di bufala production in 2012 during a short-lived partnership with Ramini Mozzarella. The Tomales water buffalo ranch, cofounded by the late Craig Ramini and now run by his widow, Audrey Hitchcock, makes small batches of the cheese that Hitchcock personally delivers to her devout chef customers. Following the end of his business relationship with Ramini, Zlot, who is now 48, found himself with a small herd of water buffalo and no clue about what to do with their velvety milk. That changed when Marco Moramarco and Paul Vierra, the owners of Gualala’s Pazzo Marco Creamery, agreed to use the milk to make gelato. It proved to be a richly delicious collaboration: Water buffalo milk contains almost three times the butterfat of milk from dairy cows. Moramarco and Vierra shared their recipe with Zlot, and in 2013, Double 8 Dairy’s gelato was born. 

Producing gelato is a more efficient use of buffalo milk than making mozzarella, and today, Double 8’s gelato is turning a profit. Its price tag of around $8 per pint reflects the costs of a small-scale startup, Zlot says; his herd, which hovers around 100, includes 50 milking buffalo. They produce about 40 to 45 gallons of milk a day, much less than typical Italian breeds. And they’re tended by a small but invested crew: Double 8’s creamery is run by Curtis Fjelstul, a third-generation butter maker, a water buffalo whisperer, and Double 8’s resident gelato master, while Melisa Schulze, the main milker, is an ex-resident of the private rehab center housed on Double 8's property.

In early 2016, Zlot had his mozzarella di bufala breakthrough courtesy of a pair of Italian mozzarella makers who were visiting San Francisco for the Winter Fancy Food Show. While they were in the area, they made a pit stop at Double 8 to demonstrate how to make a ball of the cheese, which, when crafted correctly, has a creamy texture and a mild, sweet, occasionally grassy taste. Zlot, who readily admits he’s not a cheese maker, was wowed by the Italians’ handiwork, and the younger of the pair agreed to return for more tutelage. “Their town is full of third-generation mozzarella makers—there’s so much expertise and experience,” says Zlot, who went to visit the cheese makers in Italy last March. “I was like, ‘Why didn’t I do this five years ago?’”

Launching any new food product is risky, but history suggests that making mozzarella di bufala in the United States is especially precarious. To date, there hasn’t been an enduring financially successful commercial American producer who uses locally sourced milk. (Hitchcock is working hard to make Ramini financially sustainable; it isn’t yet profitable.) Sue Conley, the cofounder of Cowgirl Creamery, points out that while the demand for water buffalo milk mozzarella is there, fresh mozzarella tends to be tied to seasonality more than other cheeses. Cowgirl sells 10 times more of it during tomato season, when caprese salads are presumably on everyone’s playlist. Conley wonders whether it’s possible to make a profit with a small herd and a limited, time-sensitive demand for its product. “It’s good Andrew has the gelato business as a base,” she says. 

Zlot knows a few things about risk—he used to be in finance—and acknowledges that he has his own concerns. “Food is a more risky business proposition than other products,” he says. “You’re building something from scratch that you want to scale up while maintaining a high quality and consistency. It’s a leap of faith.”

That said, Zlot knows he can at least count on his restaurant clients to buy his cheese: SPQR, Quince, Delfina, Perbacco, and A16 are among the short list that already serve it. Matthew Accarrino, chef of SPQR, praises Zlot’s persistence. “Andrew’s passed so many hurdles, and he hasn’t tried to rush this to market,” Accarrino says. “He’s been very measured in his approach. He’s trying to do it right and get it right.”

Zlot himself is cautiously optimistic. “I’ve learned not to get ahead of ourselves,” he says, “and I’m prepared for every disappointment possible, because that’s been my experience with this for the past four years.” But, he adds, “we have a better shot at this now than we ever have had before. We have the right process, equipment, and skill set.” 

“This can be done,” he says. “And it can be done here.”

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco 

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