Just one hour south of Naples, water buffalos are getting the royal treatment at Tenuta Vannulo, one of Italy’s premiere organic dairy farms. Situated on an expansive 500 acres in the heart of Mozzarella Land, this gastronomic paradise feels more like an estate you’d come across in Sonoma than in southern Italy’s wild and rustic countryside: not only is it exceptionally manicured, orderly and clean, it also uses advanced farming technology in sophisticated ways. While the mozzarella here is produced rigorously by hand according to traditional cheese-making methods, the buffalos themselves are treated to state-of-the-art machinery that caters to their every whim.
Each morning, Vannulo’s 600 female water buffalos awaken to the sound of Mozart’s symphonies before enjoying on-demand massage treatments, courtesy of machines outfitted with large, rotating bristles that soothe the animals’ backs and shoulders.
There is ample bedding scattered throughout, perfect for lounging and afternoon naps, and misty showers to keep them cool in the hot summer months. The farm also uses a Voluntary Milking System (VMS) created by Swedish company DeLaval to automate the milking process, so when the buffalos are ready, they simply approach a barrier and undergo a scan that detects whether their udders are full and ready for milking. If they are, the barrier opens and the buffalo moves forward to be milked by the smart machine featuring a robotic arm and built in cleaning system. If not, a turnstile redirects her so she can continue grazing on organic feed and herbs from the garden. And if a buffalo gets sick, she is treated with homeopathic medicines rather than antibiotics.
As I tour the farm marveling at its efficiency and the animals’ well-equipped lifestyle, my tour guide Rosaria tells me, “It’s like a spa for buffalos,” and I can’t help but nod my head in agreement. With plenty of recreational activities and tailored treatments available from morning to night, Vannulo’s buffalos are truly living their best life.
The Palmieri family, which has owned Tenuta Vannulo for more than a century, insists that keeping the buffalos pampered, healthy and relaxed yields a superlative product – and their clients agree. Vannulo produces only 400 kg of mozzarella daily (priced at €13/kg, or around $8/lb) and it sells out by noon, with customers lining up from 9:30am to purchase this veritable white gold.
The mozzarella comes in various shapes and sizes – from the treccia, or braid, to bocconcini, little bites – and is all kneaded, cut, and molded by hand at the crack of dawn. It comes sold immersed in the precious liquido di governo, brine that keeps the mozzarella fresh so you don’t have to refrigerate it even over the span of several days (though connoisseurs will insist that you should eat the cheese within 24 hours, when it is at its peak).
Mozzarella is an important element of south Italian cuisine and is used in a number of regional dishes, from pizza margherita and caprese salad to baked gnocchi and cold pasta salads. Although mozzarella is most commonly found in its fior di latte variant made from cow’s milk, mozzarella di bufala is the real crowning glory of the Campania region and is often classified as a DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or “Protected Designation of Origin”) food product, a quality assurance. Mozzarella di bufala is higher in fat content than fior di latte (about 8% versus 4%) and has a richer, tangier consistency.
To produce this eminent cheese, rennet is added to fresh buffalo milk and the curds are stirred before cheese-makers begin to stretch, knead and pull apart the mixture, a process known as mozzare. This important human element ensures the cheese develops a smooth, delicate texture before it is shaped into small spheres and left to soak in brine, adding a pleasant saltiness to the cheese.
Although Tenuta Vannulo is just one of many dairy farms located along Italy’s famous Strade della Mozzarella, or Mozzarella Roads, it has achieved cult-status for the care and attention it gives its buffalos, and for its dedication to creating the highest quality buffalo milk products around. It insists on selling directly to customers and doesn’t outsource its products to larger entities or restaurants; not only that, quantities are capped at 5kg per person so everyone can have a taste.
If you arrive too late to purchase Vannulo’s exalted cheese, you can try a range of other decadent buffalo milk products that are available at the farm, from gelato and pudding to cakes and mouthwatering crème spalmabili, or high-end Nutella spreads that come in chocolate, hazelnut and pistachio. Tenuta Vannulo doesn’t only pander to its water buffalos; it caters to epicureans as well.