Mozzarella: The cheese that everyone believes to know. When you think about mozzarella what comes to your mind? The pre-grated stuff to put on pizza or those pale gummy cheese balls sold in little bags stored in whey maybe? But how many have tasted the real DOC (controlled denomination) Mozzarella di Bufala Campana? Many things are called Mozzarella out there, but the original is a different thing altogether. Maybe I should cool down a bit and start all over. It's only that mozzarella, even for a half-Neapolitan as me, is a subject of love, pride, and because the misuse of the name, anger.
I recently ordered some fresh mozzarella from Italy. It is something I do maybe once or twice a year (it is quite expensive to get it here) usually because my wife asks me to. She loves the stuff even more than me, although she's German. Yesterday, since we had a guest for dinner, we decide to eat some, simply sliced and flavoured with a few drops of good EV olive oil and a bit of pepper. With that we drank some Falanghina a nice white wine typical of the Campania region, fruity but not overpowering in taste like so many whites today.
The first comment from one of our guest was: "Oh mozzarella, I don't really like it. It tastes of nothing and its so rubbery." Which clearly made me mad, but at the same time, who could blame her? That's what most people get when they eat mozzarella. Luckily after two bites of the real stuff she changed her mind... lucky for her otherwise she would not have left our flat alive... just kidding!! But it made me think how little most people know about mozzarella and so I decided to write this post.
The cheese itself is made entirely of buffalo milk. Being so stretcheable it comes in many shapes: little mozzarella bites, plaits, cylinders, you name it. The two most common ones in Italy are round 250 or 500g cheeses, which should always come stored in whey. The cheese skin is smooth and white with only the signs left by the the cutting of the pieces during shaping noticeable (more on this that later) and when sliced should release quite a bit of whey. The inside is usually somehow a bit darker than the outside, slightly ivory in colour. The smell should be slightly acidic (buttermilk) and musky, sometimes (especially in spring) noticeable grassy/floral aromas can be present. It should taste milky, slightly sour and the salt should be noticeable. It is supposed to be a bit springy but not too much, and after a few chews should almost melt in your mouth. Mmmh... delicious.
So why does the industrial stuff taste so bad and why can it be called mozzarella?
First the taste. Buffalo milk has is slightly richer in fats than cow milk, and that gives buffalo mozzarella a more buttery taste. Still very good cow mozzarella (called, around Naples, Fior di Latte) can be made. The real secret is in the acidification of the curd. Mozzarella is a cheese that melts forming long threads and this property is used for shaping it. To be able to do this the calcium which is naturally bound to casein, the main protein in cheeses, has to be remove and to achieve this the curd has to be acidified. There are two main ways to do this: you can use a starter, usually the lactic bacteria cultured in old whey from previous cheeses (the artisan method) or use plain citric acid (industry). Citric acid gives no real flavour to the cheese but allows for a longer shelf life, while the live lactic bacteria give a much richer and complex taste but make the cheese shortlived. Traditional mozzarella is, for this reason, best eaten after one to three days after it is made.
Why can almost anything be called mozzarella then? The story is quite complex, and I'm not totally sure myself. There are loads of economical and political reasons for this but one of the main ones for me is that the traditional producers wasted way too much time bickering before they thought of protecting in some way what they had. At the same time Italian politicians have been for decades unable to protect Italy's gastronomic richness. We Italians might often criticise our loved/hated French cousins but we should learn from them.
If you come across Mozzarella di Bufala maybe give it a try, otherwise there are today quite a few of local producers (in the States, Germany, even Japan) that produce mozzarella (mainly from cow milk but some also with buffalo milk) the traditional way. Look out for them, and their fresh products, and you'll discover what all the fuss is about.