“It’s incredible,” smiles Craig Ramini, “my product hasn’t even come out yet, and I’m already getting phone calls from local chefs saying, ‘Thank God you’re doing this.” On a 25-acre ranch just outside of Tomales – about 80 miles north of San Francisco – what Ramini is doing in this precise moment is stroking the snout of a beatific adolescent water buffalo named Madonna. “I continue to be amazed at how affectionate this animals are,” he continues. “They’re more loyal than any Labrador I’ve ever met.”
And he should know. For the last three years, this ex-Silicon Valley software engineer-turned-cheesemaker has dedicated himself almost entirely to water buffalo – their needs, their habits, and of course, their milk. The 62 year-old self-professed “perfectionist and compulsive neat freak ” (he keeps his milking stalls cleaner than most kitchens) is about to become the only farmstead producer of mozzarella di bufala in the United States, albeit on a small, highly localized scale. “I’m aiming to be a highly proficient, but very quality attentive micro-creamery,” explains Ramini.
This isn’t just another case of a successful businessman making a mid-life transition from the cutthroat corporate world to the more genteel industry of artisan food. Successfully producing farmstead buffalo mozzarella requires getting one gigantic thing right, straight from the start: the breeding and raising of water buffalo to be dairy animals, a practice that has never taken hold in American ranching tradition. Italy, on the other hand, has been breeding and raising Water Buffalo for their dairy properties for centuries: the area around Naples, particularly Campania, where the cheese enjoys a DOP (Protected Domain of Origin) status, is full of farmstead dairies producing solely mozzarella di bufala, a significant portion of which is imported to the United States. So what’s the need for a local alternative? The freshness factor. Buffalo milk mozzarella is ideally eaten within five days (“but five hours is even better”, says Raimini) of its production– so even the high quality cheeses that arrive in the United States are usually well past their prime once they hit the upscale Bay Area markets that sell them.
Having started with just five water buffalo in 2009, Ramini’s dairy herd – each cow bearing the name of a rock music icon – now numbers more than forty, and is currently producing about 100 liters of milk a day. And it was “teaching”” these giant horned beats to feel comfortable enough in barn stalls for daily milking that presented Ramini’s first and foremost challenge. His journey from software expert to expert cheese maker has taken him around the world – from Australia to Italy – to see how the “masters” breed, treat and milk their prized animals. He also turned to the book, Human Livestock Handling by author, professor and animal behavior expert, Temple Grandin (who was portrayed by actress Clare Danes in a 2010 HBO biopic film) for guidance and inspiration.
In mid July, Ramini called upon another expert for this final stage of recipe perfection, just prior to his product’s release, which is planned for the end of the summer. Salvatore Mannino, a Sicilian “cheese maestro” who has been in Southern California since 1981, paid a week-long visit to Ramini’s ranch, helping him to perfect the recipe. Mannino has been making mozzarella, he himself says, since he was five years old – and is still passionate about the product some fifty-odd years later. “Salvatore’s been doing this so long,” says Ramini, “that he just has to see, smell and touch the cheese and he knows if we’re getting close.” How will this perfectionist know when his masterpiece is ready for market? “I’m about five yards away from a touchdown,” he says. “I feel like we’re really almost there.”
There have been other attempts at raising Water Buffalo for the local production of mozzarella over the years –Woodstock Cheese in Vermont (whose Directors of Operations, Ken Underwood, was an early advisor to Ramini), and Bubalis Bubalus in Southern California, which is where Ramini eventually purchased his five original dairy buffalo back in 2009. No stranger to risky ventures, Ramini has created a business model to ensure that Ramini Mozzeralla will avoid the same pitfalls as its predecessors. Aiming for a milking herd of 50 animals, Ramini is planning to approach distribution as would a small boutique winery, producing about 600 lbs a cheese a month and allocating it in a 60-40 ratio between restaurants and individual consumers. “From my business experience,” says Ramini, “I know that where something is difficult, therein lies great opportunity. People have come very close. Some have even succeeded for a while. I just want to do this carefully, and create something sustainable.”