A Taste of Italy, Via Vermont

Times Staff Writer

One glorious morning, David Muller's girls were in the barn, lolling as usual on their heated waterbeds.

When Muller walked in, the girls stood up in their cozy private stalls, an impressive feat for animals the size of Ford Fiesta automobiles. Several nosed toward him. Then they backed off. Gingerly, they stepped forward once again, heads cocked so Muller could scratch between their horseshoe-shaped horns.

"They are like teenagers," Muller said of his 50 Southeast Asian water buffaloes. "They want to be friendly. But they are also kind of shy."

These gentle, warm-weather creatures -- never before domesticated in frigid New England -- surprised local skeptics when they easily weathered their first winter in Muller's unheated barn. Now producing babies along with extravagant quantities of milk, the water buffaloes are key to a bold idea with potential rewards for both Muller and a state that trades heavily on its bucolic image.

Muller plans to flood high-end restaurants and gourmet food shops with domestically produced buffalo mozzarella cheese, a product traditionally imported from Italy.

His vision of overseeing 50 water buffalo farms comes as Vermont struggles to save its dairy industry, where record low prices for cow's milk may force a third of its 1,400 dairy farms to close this year.

State officials have such confidence in Muller's concept that they awarded him a rare $1-million loan. They also dispatched the University of Vermont's top dairy scientist to help him out.

"The stakes here are very high," said University of Vermont professor Paul Kindstedt, who studies the science of cheese making. "The state is investing its prestige in this effort -- our whole image as a place where miracles can happen.

"What we value most in Vermont is agriculture-based endeavor," Kindstedt said. "With David's water buffalo, we're talking about a scale of undertaking that I think is unique."

Muller and his mozzarella have yet to prove themselves. "He has a major challenge," said Allison Hooper, head of a dairy collaborative called the Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. "Many people are going to say, 'Why should I pay top dollar for his mozzarella when I can get the real thing from Sicily?' "

Muller hopes to have Woodstock Water Buffalo mozzarella in restaurants and markets sometime this fall. Within two years, he expects to produce 4,000 pounds of buffalo mozzarella each week. The cheese will sell for about $16 a pound, he said, about the same price as mozzarella from Italy.

But even before any mozzarella has emerged from Muller's $2.5-million laboratory, the venture is starting to pay off. Woodstock Water Buffalo yogurt, an unexpected product that Muller whipped up in his kitchen, sells for $2 a pint in 200 markets from Boston to Beverly Hills. Devotees overlook the yogurt's 17% fat content, praising its clean flavor and dense consistency.

Buffalo milk contains 8% to 10% fat, more than twice the fat found in cow's milk. Genuine buffalo mozzarella has a spongy, bread-like texture. The flavor is rich but not cloying -- a taste that can stand alone or accompany other foods without overpowering them.

To assure authenticity, Muller imported mozzarella maker Vincenzo Ferraro, 36, from the Campania region of southern Italy.

Enzo, as he is known, lends an air of authority to a laboratory so immaculate that anyone who enters must wear knee-high boots and a plastic cap to ward off bacteria. He paces among stainless steel vats, instructing a trio of Vermonters in the art of turning buffalo milk into perfect orbs of rich white cheese. Around him, heads nod in comprehension -- though Enzo speaks not one word of English.

Each step is carefully calibrated. After the milk is pumped and processed, the cheese congeals in a giant caldron of brine. It is pressed by hand into balls, and gradually a thin skin appears. Consistency is critical, Enzo decrees.

Before discovering the world of water buffaloes and gourmet cheese, Muller was chief executive of Summit Technology, a Boston-based company that developed the equipment for laser eye surgery. The firm was sold three years ago, leaving Muller wealthy. He had no relationships to tie him down and an urge to try something new.

Muller shopped for property in California, Colorado, Kentucky and Florida. One weekend he drove to southern Vermont, the same area he lived in after flunking out of undergraduate school. He remembered how much he loved the area, and bought a 250-acre farm.

But there was still the problem of what to do.

Muller -- who has a doctorate in physics as well as two master's degrees, one from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school -- thought about reinventing himself as Vermont's first master vintner. He longed to be "the East Coast counterpart of all those California wine people." Then he got realistic about the weather.

While dining on Nantucket, eating "some delicious European cow's cheese," Muller started to wonder: "If they can make this kind of cheese, why can't we?" The reason turned out to be federal law, which carefully regulates the use of raw milk.

"So that was off the table," said Muller, 54.

But his mind was now set on artisanal cheese making: a growing movement of small cheese producers. Researching traditional European cheeses that might be manufactured in the U.S., "what popped up was mozzarella," Muller said. "I was thinking: the white cheese, not very interesting."

The entrepreneur in him quickly took over. If the Italians made mozzarella from water buffalo milk, so would he, Muller decided.

Reading books and scouring the Internet, Muller researched water buffaloes. He contacted the small fraternity of breeders involved in promoting animals introduced to Europe during the Crusades, and to this country in 1974.

He uncovered a demand for buffalo milk for cheese, but discovered that "no one wanted to raise" these cumbersome creatures. He found that while some domestic producers market small quantities of buffalo mozzarella, no one had cornered the U.S. market.

"What was needed," he concluded, "was someone who was going to raise the animals and make the cheese and spend a lot of money doing it."

Along with its high fat content, water buffalo milk is higher in calcium and protein than cow's milk -- and lower in cholesterol. Muller learned that a typical cow gives milk for three to four years. A water buffalo will yield milk for 12 to 14 years.

His concerns about subjecting these animals -- natives of India and Southeast Asia -- to Vermont's extreme winters vanished when he saw an Internet photograph of a water buffalo surrounded by snow in Montana. Muller contacted U.S. breeders, who normally raise water buffaloes as targets for hunters or as pets.

Although "a sensible person probably would have brought two or three up here to see how they did," Muller said, he rounded up a herd of the 1,400-pound water buffaloes. His operation was running within 18 months of devising a business plan.

Muller entered the dairy business at a time of growing activity in what is known as the farmstead cheese movement, in which farmers make cheese from milk produced by animals they raise themselves. Many raise their own feed, qualifying them as fully sustainable farmers.

Farmstead cheese makers often market directly to consumers, at farmers' markets or on the Internet. Barry King, executive director of the American Cheese Society, says that of 208 cheese-making members in his trade society, 53 are farmsteaders.

"How much money they represent to the industry, I don't think anybody knows," King said. "Some of them are so small they don't even register. But they happen to make unbelievably fine cheese."

The quality comes at a price. A pound of ordinary supermarket cheddar cheese costs about $4.99. Vermont's Grafton Gold Reserve cheddar costs $23.99.

"It's the difference between enjoying a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild or a bottle of cold duck," King said.

Muller also chose cheese making at a precarious time for Vermont dairies. In South Woodstock, Muller's farm is one of only two remaining dairies, down from 28 just four years ago.

Dairy farmers in Vermont earn about 11 cents a pound for their milk, 2 cents less than the cost of production. In the last decade, about 75 Vermont dairy farms have shut down annually. This year the number could grow to 400, said Steve R. Kerr, Vermont secretary of agriculture.

Most U.S. dairy farmers belong to marketing cooperatives that establish milk prices for the farmers, said professor George Haenlein, an animal scientist at the University of Delaware. In recent years, Haenlein said, "the minimum price that a farmer will get for 100 pounds of milk has been dropping consistently down to a level at or below the cost of production."

In addition, Haenlein said, Congress removed the safety net of minimum milk prices. Many dairy farmers consequently are fleeing the industry, he said.

"It has been a very difficult time, and that has stimulated farmers to look for alternatives -- especially in the Northeast, where there are more small farmers," Haenlein said.

While insisting that "the dairy industry here is no different -- no stronger and no weaker -- than it is in any other state," Kerr conceded that "the last few years have been ... absolutely miserable" for the largest milk-producing region in the Northeast.

Close to half a billion dollars, about 85% of Vermont's gross agricultural revenues, comes from the dairy industry, Kerr said, adding, "We are the least-diversified agricultural state in the U.S."

Kerr said that is why state officials were drawn to Muller's market research. "He looked at categories of dairy products that are growing. He noted that mozzarella cheese made from water buffalo was a hot commodity. Good for him," Kerr said.

Kerr called Muller's endeavor a model for Vermont farmers who can no longer afford to raise cows but want to remain in agriculture. As Muller's water buffalo empire expands, Kerr said, other farmers could follow suit.

"What a wonderful vision," Kerr said. "I don't see why we couldn't be as famous for mozzarella as Italy."

Muller is not the first to attempt to make domestic buffalo mozzarella. Several small producers sell the cheese on the Internet, and Paula Lambert, proprietor of the Mozzarella Cheese Co. in Dallas, tried for three years to make it using milk from herds in Arkansas.

Lambert said she assumed "there would be a gigantic mozzarella market" in the U.S.

"There was not," she said. "The mozzarella from Italy is fabulous, and it is shipped here directly, almost as quickly as anyone can get their own cheese across the country."

But Renato Confalonieri, proprietor of a water buffalo dairy in California called Bubalus Bubalis Inc., has seen his own buffalo mozzarella sales double each year since 2000. Confalonieri said he knows Muller well and lauds his efforts.

"He is bringing in experience and experts from around the world," said Confalonieri, who keeps his 300 water buffaloes in Chino. "And what he has done in establishing a partnership with the state of Vermont is fantastic, because he is creating a precedent."

Recently, dairy scientist Kindstedt stopped by Muller's farm to check on the mozzarella progress. He said the surprise sight of water buffaloes grazing on hillsides made famous by Robert Frost adds to the value of Muller's undertaking.

"Tourism is crucial to our economy in Vermont," he said. "And this effort presents an absolute synergy between agriculture and tourism."

Muller agreed.

"Everyone knows about Vermont and maple syrup," he said. "Why can't it be just as well-known for water buffalo?"

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