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Uncovering the rich history and culture of Campania’s beloved mozzarella

Water buffalo pulling a wagon

Mozzarella has special distinction in Italy. Protected since 1996, it is one of those products labelled DOC or “controlled designation of origin”. Specific aficionados avoid using the term ‘mozzarella’ unless the cheese uses buffalo milk produced from the southern Campania region of Italy. Said to be discovered by accident when cheese curds fell into some hot water, this particular cheese dates back to the 1st Century AD when the Arabs introduced water buffaloes.

With pasteurisation and refrigeration non-existent at the time, the cheese was mainly consumed locally. However, as these new technologies developed, the fame of mozzarella spread. Some of the most highly prized artisanal buffalo mozzarella still originates south of Naples near Battipaglia where we stayed for two nights. Lining the roads in these areas, numerous small factories continue the traditions of the past producing the cheese known as ‘white gold’.

Visiting a masseria

These days, the factories jostle for space between the hundreds of greenhouses growing every type of fruit and vegetables. Abandoned stone dwellings appear regularly dotted along the country roads or stranded in the middle of fields. Their empty windows seem like hollow eyes and their untended fruit trees like lost souls still inhabiting their lifelong homes. Delicately scented mauve wisteria climbs over every trellis or fence. A picturesque floral dressing for the scenes of historic decay in these previously poverty-stricken farming areas.
Luckily, our accommodation at a masseria or fortified farmhouse, was the site of one of the mozzarella operations of the past. While no longer producing the cheese, the farm maintains a museum of mozzarella to educate interested visitors.

First descending below ground to the ancient cellar, we notice the temperature drop. The cellar, built originally to accommodate wine, cheese and butter, today houses some of the farm’s own wine. A sign inside suggests that a cellar that cannot serve wine is necessarily harmful to cheese. So, this cellar is probably ok. Built entirely around four metres below ground, external buildings surrounded it on three sides to provide shade and additional cooling. This kept the temperature at a constant 12 degrees and the reason for the slight chill.

A hard life

Some cheese making paraphernalia decorates the edges of the cavernous space, but the museum calls me. The museum is housed nearby in one of the two bufalare or conical brick buildings that remain on the farm. Designed entirely for the making of the cheese, these buildings contained a fire in the centre. Used not only for the cheese making, the fire also warmed the family who lived in the very same building. This family looked after the buffalo, milking them, and producing the cheese. Originally built of timber, later buildings were constructed of brick as are the two we see at La Morella, the masseria where we stayed.

Coming from a farming background myself, I’m always interested in how farming families lived in the past. Take a look at some of the photos to see the tough life these families endured. Fascinating displays include dummy cheeses that represent the different stages after ageing for between one and three years. The main differences were in the colour and the amount of mould on each!

Agriculture today

Emerging from the dimness inside the bufalare, the warm sun shines on us. Today there is a beautiful large swimming pool to entertain guests at the farm. Lemon trees strain under the weight of this season’s crop. One of the farm buildings has been repurposed as a restaurant that today hosts a baptism party. School groups frequently visit to learn about agricultural life in the past.

The lives of agricultural workers today are very different from those of earlier centuries. Many are refugees or temporary migrants from nearby eastern European countries. They zip around the country lanes on fat-tyred electric bicycles or ride in vans with friendly rivalry and jostling among the red-cheeked women. Today, farming enterprises rely on other income. Income such as that generated by paying guests such as us, restaurant parties and school groups who arrive by the busload but thankfully depart before evening comes.

The fortified farmhouse stands solidly

As the light fades, the yellow-painted buildings of the masseria echo with the sighs of workers past. The peasant farmer’s children likely ran and squealed in rare moments of freedom. Today it is the groups of school children whose cries sound through the stone courtyards. The children’s songs crowd out the ghosts of those from before. But, just as in centuries gone before, the scent of the orange blossom still turns my head as I make my way to dinner at the restaurant.

Walking through the courtyard, the grove of citrus trees cluster in the corner. Their ancient trunks curve in odd shapes somehow reminiscent of arms and legs. But no, the scent of blossoms draws me back to the real world. The crescent moon hangs low in the western sky. A lone heron screeches as it takes flight. These things haven’t changed for centuries. Only the solidity of the fortified farm buildings remains unchanged. It reminds me of those water buffaloes who gave the milk and the farmers who made the white gold of the beloved mozzarella cheese in times past. Those water buffaloes whose progeny likely continue to give the precious milk today.

All photos taken at La Morella with many sourced from the Museo Mozzarella.

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