OroBianco Italian Creamery Makes Magic With Water Buffalo Milk
Making mozzarella from white gold
Phil Giglio, a practicing lawyer who left Chicago to run a farm in Fredericksburg, is an unlikely purveyor of cheese. But his Italian heritage, and a fascination with sustainable agriculture, led him to relationships with ethical ranchers and a local chef, foretelling his future. "I got here and thought, 'Shoot, I don't know anything about raising livestock or making cheese. I have none of the tools to get this thing done, other than ambition.'"
During our call, Giglio is sitting on his property watching his herd of water buffalo, which he co-owns with Jason and Marianna Peeler. "I'm sitting here right now – I've got a big pond out here at my property in Fredericksburg – and they're out there, they look like hippos. They fully submerge in the water and they spend most of the day in the water. They get out and graze and then get back in the water. They're really interesting animals."
In a 2012 New York Times Magazine profile, writer Sam Anderson describes real mozzarella di bufala as "the apotheosis of dairy." The opening line reads, "Buffalo mozzarella is the Great White Whale of American cheesemaking: a dream so exotic and powerful that it drives otherwise sensible people into ruinous monomaniacal quests."
Giglio, alongside the Peelers and Austin chef Fiore Tedesco, has set about an arduous, but entirely wonderful, quest to bring water buffalo mozzarella to Central Texas.
Tedesco, co-owner of Italian-inspired restaurant L'Oca d'Oro, met Giglio through Marianna and Jason Peeler of Peeler Ranch in Floresville. As the story goes, Tedesco and Marianna had been discussing starting a buffalo mozzarella project for a couple years prior to the introduction.
"Before I opened L'Oca, I was working with Marianna on beef and lamb for the restaurants, and really geeking out on how I wanted the [animals] raised and all that, and one day – before L'Oca opened – she says, 'You know what, I think Jason is going to get these water buffalo because he knows this veterinarian that has [some] and they're not doing too well because it's cold in Ithaca [New York]. I don't know what the hell we're going to do with them yet, but I know they do stuff in Italy with them – what would you want to do with them?' That's almost verbatim the conversation. If you know Marianna, she's very intelligent and super talented, and she leads with her disarmingness. So I say, 'How many animals are we talking about?' She says, 'Oh, like 45.' I was like, 'They're like two tons apiece – are you just going to take 90 tons of these massive scary animals onto the ranch? She says, 'I don't know, but Jason's all about it.' I thought, well, this is exactly what we need to do: Make a dairy and make water buffalo mozzarella. You can't get it here, yadda yadda. She says that it sounds very cool.
"So it all seemed possible, then impossible. Nine months later, she says, 'Hey, did I tell you Jason picked up the animals? Boy, they're big.' At that point I was six months into owning a restaurant and I couldn't talk about it. But I'm pulling so much mozzarella every day at the restaurant and I just keep thinking about it."
In January 2019 or so, Marianna informed Tedesco that Giglio had tracked her down about making buffalo mozzarella because he was "obsessed with it," and that he'd bought property in Fredericksburg and moved here. That spring Giglio bought a creamery in Blanco, and Tedesco and Giglio, both with origin stories in upstate New York and both with family in Italy, traveled together to the motherland last summer for a few weeks to study in more than 20 caseficios, Italian mozzarella dairies. They've all been working on the project, OroBianco Italian Creamery, ever since.
It's important that we differentiate between mozzarella and buffalo mozzarella, a delineation that rests upon both the contrast of American and Italian palates and the milk's inherent properties. But first, the majestic mammals themselves.
"People often ask me what the biggest challenge is and there's about 100 of them, but the main one is just education," says Giglio. "People think I'm out here milking one of those big bison from the Great Plains, but it's a very different animal. Unsurprisingly, they love water. When people in the U.S. use the word buffalo, what they're typically referring to are bison – the big scary looking animal that I would absolutely never want to milk. A water buffalo is indigenous, originally, to Southeast Asia [and India]; they were swamp animals. They dwelled in the swamps and ate brush, [eventually] settling in a number of places. They [were brought] to Sicily about 1,000 years ago and made their way to mainland Italy, where people started to use their milk in this really magical way."
Eleventh century Southern Italy was marshy and malaria-ridden, and the bovine (who bear the delightfully rhythmic scientific name, Bubalus bubalis) were charged simply with clearing out the vegetation until the Italian folks realized "these animals produce some really amazing milk – really rich in butter fat and really high in protein, and it would make some killer mozzarella."
Water buffalo arrived stateside during the Seventies in a pretty similar fashion: "They made their way to Southern Florida to chomp down the Everglades and get rid of swamp material that cattle wouldn't eat."
Another 50 years later in America, here we are, still discovering the wonders of Bub-bub's milk. To this day, even small scale water buffalo dairy operations are few and far between; it's still a niche industry. In part that's because of the unique learning curve in handling these now domesticated creatures that are, Giglio says, "more like cattle than bison" but "more challenging than dairy cattle." The OroBianco herd fluctuates between 150-200 head at 1,500-1,800 pounds a pop at maturity. "They have horns, and they're not naturally aggressive, but they're big, and they don't necessarily want to be milked. It's all been part of the fun."
If, like me, your mind's eye wanders to the infamous buffalo that earned a place in Africa's Big Five list – as in the five most deadly big game animals in the sub-Saharan – you're picturing the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer). "Those things are crazy scary and dangerous, undomesticated. They'll kill lions – you don't mess with an African buffalo," says Giglio. The water buffalo that have captured his heart are a more domesticated breed. "They've been bred over thousands of years to, well, they really act just like cattle. But they're smarter. They're really inquisitive – more like a Jersey cow than an African safari animal."
Apart from stellar dinner conversation fodder, water buffalo offer a chance to explore the nuances of cheese politics and science. Much like Parmesan or Champagne, buffalo mozzarella – specifically, mozzarella di bufala campagnia – is a protected term.
"In Italy they have what they call a DOP [Denominazione d'Origine Protetta or Protected Designation of Origin]. It can only be that term if you're produced in one of five regions in Italy, primarily around Naples. In the U.S. you will sometimes see some things on the shelves that they call mozzarella di bufala, but you can't use the word campagnia, because that refers to the province," explains Giglio.
So, what is it about the water buffalo's milk that makes it worth all the hullabaloo? Pretty much everything.
Tedesco has been making mozzarella for many years, "teaching classes and learning and studying the science of it," but his affinity for it was spotty for a while. "I didn't like cheese growing up. I wouldn't go near it." After a bad childhood experience eating cheese on the porch during a hot summer day in New York, and suffering through his parents' fondue parties ("It was the Eighties"), Tedecso swore it off, save for an occasional small bit of mozzarella on pizza. He'd watched his grandmother make mozzarella – "so I knew how to make it sort of innately, but I really took it for granted" – but it wasn't until he began working summer kitchen gigs in hotels, and his uncle's deli in Troy, that he began to reevaluate cheese as a medium. While living in Europe touring with a band, he "got brave enough to try a bunch of cheese in France, and really got into it." The future restaurant owner returned to New York and staged for a year until Roberta's (famed New York pizzeria) opened, and former cheese-hater Tedesco volunteered to make the mozzarella.
All of that, of course, was "regular" cow's milk mozzarella, which is the vast majority of stateside mozzarella. So, what is it, then, about this cheese that's so special?
"Process wise, it's not different. It's just harder. From A to Z, it's harder," Tedesco explains. But the milk? It's much different. Water buffalo are bigger, more fickle, and don't have the milk-specific bloodlines as deep as dairy cows, so trying to turn a profit is very challenging. He said you'll get somewhere around 4-6 times as much milk from a dairy cow that weighs half as much; that's between 8-12 times less milk per pound of animal. Additionally, because water buffalo milk has a much higher fat and lactose content – "more of all the stuff that makes it great, sweeter, richer" – it also has a shorter shelf life and is more prone to spoilage. Water buffalo milk needs to be processed in 12 hours or "it's gone." Pasteurized cow's milk has nearly three times the shelf life. "Cow's milk is generally a lot more forgiving but doesn't have the character or the flavor – it's not even close."
Over the course of the last year, Tedesco has been making gallons of test cheese, trying to lock in the exact recipe of their OroBianco water buffalo mozzarella, tasting the milk and variations in texture. Texture, he says, is three-quarters of the flavor.
"I think that's true with any food. Like that beautiful French bread, that beautiful baguette: Before you taste the wheat or the quality of the flour or the yeast, you feel the crackle of the crust in your mouth, which opens up memories and thoughts and all these neural pathways that change the way your tastebuds act. You can't really taste anything without that external relationship. Theoretically you could, but humans don't."
Because most American palates don't have context for Italian water buffalo mozzarella, the OroBianco product will end up different than the same product in Italy. "What is too tight there, might be just right here, or vice versa. Another big part is the perceived complexity and even sourness," said Tedesco. In Italy, there are two distinct styles from the two main mozzarella regions: There's the version from Caserta (where Tedesco's family hails) and Naples, and there's the Salerno style. It's not how it's pulled, but the brine it sits in. Tedesco explains that in Caserta, once you pull the mozzarella, it's rested in room temperature salt water. ("they're pretty particular about the kind of sea salt because it impacts the flavor"). In Salerno, they add citric acid and lactic acid to the salted water, imparting not only preservation but a distinctly sour flavor, "which I do not like as much," says Tedesco. "I'd say Americans tasting that [kind], would probably think my cheese is just rotten all the time. Because it's similar, but not the same as when you eat pizza with mozzarella that's a little old. An undiscerning palate wouldn't know the difference. Conveniently, I don't like it as much but if I did, I'd be at a crossroads because it would be like, 'Do I make it the way I think is best, or the way I think people will understand it?'"
Therein lies the complexity not only of water buffalo mozzarella, but of OroBianco's specific version. "It's such a cool product because you can control all of that. It's part of the fun."
As with any food product, sustainability, ethics, and mindfulness about waste reduction ought to be at the forefront. And with any dairy animal, the often underdiscussed element is what happens to the male animals? Both Tedesco and Giglio were shocked to learn of the standard incineration practice in Italy and decided that an additional goal of OroBianco would be to develop a product that utilized the meat.
Giglio says, "That's a big part of my farming vision, and any project really: How do you make things fit together so that you don't have waste? Fiore is really into no waste. [We want to] take a liability from one enterprise and make it an asset of another – [here], that's a perfect fit."
Tedesco explains, "Americans eat the most meat per capita and have the most ignorant views on it. And it's in part because our brand of consumerism is not an educational one. Italians don't like eating buffalo meat. They turn their nose up at it. It's like talking to barbecue idiots that don't want to use grass-fed meats. They don't like the taste of it. This is where Italians can be funny: 'Sustainability be damned, I like it this way.'"
And that's to the detriment of a lot of species around humans, he says. "I don't need a soliloquy about the animal, but there's a pretty binary line to me: This is good meat; this is bad meat. My work life is complicated and hard enough; I do not need to take on starting a creamery and dairy, but I'm passionate about it. I can only do it if I'm doing it in a way that I can comfortably answer all the questions about sustainability."
What does water buffalo meat taste like? "It is really, really lovely, almost like really good grass-fed beef, but just a little leaner," Tedesco says. "I found it to have a really delicate texture, like really good wagyu beef [something the Peelers specialize in]. When you touch it, it has a sort of softness that is delightful, without being really fatty. And it's sweeter." Also on the horizon is the possibility of water buffalo/pork mortadella, "the king of emulsified meat." Yes, buffalo bologna.
The entire OroBianco enterprise wants to "make the circle a little less messy." Giglio added pigs to his menagerie in part to consume the nutritious skim milk created in the mozzarella separation process, and just launched a line of cured meats, such as salumi, from the water buffalo and other animals he and the Peelers raise (including duck, lamb and pork) for their new brand, Stockmen Salumi Co., an OroBianco adjacent business. The meats are cured by state-licensed The Salumeria in Austin and will soon be available for purchase at the OroBianco location in Blanco, which allows "a cheese and meat offering, so we could basically sell an entire charcuterie board to customers."
Distribution (and Gelato)
Other products are possible as well, but perhaps the most critical element of OroBianco resides within the tricky distribution chain. (One such potential product, by the way, is mozzarella butter, a glorious divinity made from the fat that resides on top of the vats after pulling the cheese.)
"The moment you refrigerate this cheese is the moment it's not special anymore," shares Tedesco. When that happens, its very specific texture goes away, never to return. Buffalo mozzarella, in its purest form, is only viable for two days unrefrigerated.
"It's in the name – white gold – it's very, very precious. And so much of the products that we make have to not be so precious or else we'll lose everybody," he insists.
For example, if they're making burrata, where cream is added inside thereby stabilizing the product, it lasts longer, but it's simply not the same. If you're putting the mozzarella on pizza, you can refrigerate it and still get the special tang. But, "if you're just eating a slice of the mozzarella with olive oil or tomato or basil or something, to have it at room temperature, out of brine, is absolute magic. If we could have 10,000 people try a slice like that, I feel like I could convince 99 percent of them why this is the best way and why it should be that way. If you go to Italy, everybody knows that – you don't have to convince a single person. It's endemic in the culture that this is how you treat mozzarella, and in a couple days you put it in the fridge and then you're cooking with it."
It's those first 48 hours, the golden hours, that they want to get it to people, which means the distributors must also understand (and respect) the product – and have the infrastructure in place. "This is the crux of it – whether or not this thing will fold and shit the bed in a year, or whether it's viable for a long time, is how much we can influence the people that partner with us to sell the cheese, and the people that consume the cheese, how to treat it and how to eat it." Somewhere like Farmhouse Delivery, Tedesco suggests, which already ensures fresh products to their customers the same or next day. Selling at Austin farmers' markets is a definite goal, as well as The Pearl in San Antonio, in addition to local restaurants, including, of course, L'Oca d'Oro. Giglio says he's also working with wineries in Fredericksburg.
As with other new food businesses during the pandemic-related hardships of 2020, OroBianco has been delayed several times, in construction and permitting. Their circuit's small size (for the industry) helps with ensuring the process is possible: The animals hang out at Giglio's Fredericksburg property before moving to the rebuilt Floresville dairy to be milked, or harvested by the Peelers. The milk will be trucked to the creamery (a state of the art facility, rebuilt by H-E-B's team from Arkansas) every morning, where Tedesco and his team will make the cheese. And from there, to us.
So when can we get our hands on these special products? Just this week, Tedesco told the Chronicle regarding the mozzarella, "We are very very close." Giglio confirmed by phone that the Blanco retail storefront/cafe on the creamery property – where they will sell cheese, meat, gelato, coffee, and wine – is expected to open to the public in January 2021.
In the meantime, there's water buffalo milk gelato, an ongoing collaboration between Tedesco and Giglio, who adds his gelato training in Bologna to Tedesco's decade of experience in creating the Italian frozen dessert. Recently, they made some with Fredericksburg pecans and Two Hives honey, and a roasted almond variety with Hye Rum's hot chocolate. As we anxiously await the cafe opening, the gelato will be available at several ticketed events.
"We're not going to rush it," says Giglio of the cheese. "That is one of the beauties of working with Fiore. He's so diligent and so proud of what he does in the craft and the heritage behind it that he's not going to rush. And I have no interest in rushing to turn something out. So if it has to drag because we're not ready, then it will." Good things take time.
OroBianco expects their Blanco retail storefront/cafe to open to the public in January 2021. Up-to-date product and ticket information will be available on www.orobiancomilk.com and their Instagram page (@orobiancomilk). Giglio suggests joining the email list and reaching out to him directly (email@example.com) for specific procurement information.