Most people would know mozzarella as the stringy and stretchy cheese that is melted on top of pizze. Some incredibly bland versions of mozzarella exist solely for the fast food trade, and many come pre-packed in (yikes) shredded form, with anti-caking chemicals to stop it clumping together. What a sad way to treat such a noble and unique cheese.
Mozzarella is a regional specialty of Campania and Latium in Southern Italy, and is now produced in many Southern Italian regions such as Salerno, Caserta and Puglia. Sadly, the cheese most of us buy as mozzarella outside of Italy is but a pale imitation of the original.
First and most importantly, this sweet and milky white cheese is made not from the milk of cows, but from buffalo. Buffalo milk has a lower fat content than cow milk, so the finished buffalo mozzarella ends up at a slender 21% fat, compared to 40% for equivalent cow cheeses. Now fat normally means flavour, but in the case of mozzarella di bufala, the lack of fat is compensated by the naturally rich and sweet flavour of buffalo milk.
Mozzarella grabs its name from the Italian verb mozzare, which in a rough sense translates as the act of tearing or cutting. This gives a major clue as to the production of the cheese. Mozzarella belongs to a group of cheeses known as cooked curd or stretched curd cheese. The process involves heating freshly squeezed buffalo milk to 33 °C (90 °F), at which stage rennet is added to allow the formation of curds. These are settled into a large cohesive mass for 20 minutes or so. A large blade is then used to cut the solid curd into progressively smaller pieces, down to around 4 cm across. Up to here this is fairly standard cheese making practice - here comes the interesting part.
The small cubes of curd are placed in very hot water, almost boiling in fact, at 90 °C (194 °F). The now softened and melting curds are lifted out of the hot water and swung around by hand, which stretches the cheese so as to create strands in its structure. The cheese is then formed into its distinctive shape of a large sphere topped with a smaller one, then immersed in brine to cool and set. The cheese is now finished - perfection has been achieved. This heating and stretching of the curds is the reason behind mozzarella's trademark stringy texture when melted.
There are several delicious variations of mozzarella, all of which enrich the Italian stretched curd cheese family. Bocconcini (or morsels) are much smaller - around the size of an apricot, and are shaped in a single sphere, rather than the more traditional "double-ball" shape. Ciliegine (or small cherries) are aptly named. They are the same shape as bocconcini, but the size of a cherry. These are sometimes sold in English speaking countries as "milk kisses", and are as yummy as they sound. Treccia is an intricately shaped form of mozzarella, twisted into plaits while it is still hot.
Mozzarella can also be smoked, creating the fabulous provola. This cheese has a hard yellow to brown rind on the exterior, which is due not to a mould, but the smoking process. The centre of the cheese is firmer and drier than regular mozzarella, owing to moisture loss - and it tastes wonderful, classic mozzarella flavour and texture, with a deep and lingering smokiness.
Around Rome there is a cheese made with a very similar process, but using a blend of cows and ewes milk as its basis. This harder textured and yellow cheese is known as provatura. Just like mozzarella, provatura has a smoked version, called scamorza.
If the only encounter with mozzarella you have had is on top of a pizza, then you could be missing half the point. The same factors that make the cheese stringy when cooked give mozzarella a tantalizing, yet different texture when raw as well. It is an essential component of the classic insalata Caprese, which deftly combines tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. The milky soft flavour also plays nicely against the full taste of rich fruits such as figs, quince, peaches and nectarines.
Lately, enterprising primary producers have been experimenting with traditional buffalo mozzarella production outside of Italy. In Australia's Northern Territory, an intrepid group has been domesticating wild herds of buffalo and transforming the milk into mouth-watering cheeses. They are not cheap - in fact they are gaspingly expensive (around AUD$80/kg), however neither is establishment of a fledgling buffalo cheese business cheap. The pioneering nature of their enterprise should be encouraged, lest it be lost all together.
Here is a recipe that showcases mozzarella in its raw state. It is partnered with the full and deep flavour of fresh figs, along with the aggressive saltiness of coppa, or Italian cured pork neck. The simple milky taste of raw mozzarella brings these strong flavours into harmony.
Fig, mozzarella and coppa salad
4 Ripe fresh figs (substitute peaches or nectarines)
1/2 a fresh mozzarella di bufala (around 125 gm) or use regular mozzarella
8 slices coppa (or use prosciutto)
8 basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
Thanks to Footprints and baffo for their assistance on matters culinary, cultural and linguistic regarding this amazing cheese.
Cut the figs into quarters and place into a large bowl. Tear the basil into small pieces, and do the same with the coppa, then add them to the figs. Grab the mozzarella and rip it into small pieces. Notice how the strands of the cooked curd reveal themselves when torn, not sliced. Place with the figs and season the whole lot with salt and pepper.
Drizzle over a generous splash of olive oil - be sure to use the best you can afford, and gently toss the salad together. Place indelicately onto 4 plates, drizzle over a little more oil and grind some more pepper.
This salad would be a perfect match to a medium weight, fruity and un-wooded white wine. Try a colombard or semillon.