For some years now, water-buffalo cheeses have been a feature on hip restaurant menus, and top sellers at better cheese shops. The milk, with a mild flavour, high fat content and rich consistency, is the ultimate for making silky ricotta and balls of fresh mozzarella. But mention buffalo milk to most Canadians, and they curl their lips. “People can be really squeamish,” says Alberta farmstead cheesemaker James Meservy of Old West Ranch near Calgary. “But buffalo milk is far less different from cow’s milk than you would expect.”
While most of Asia and Europe have valued water-buffalo milk as a high-protein food for centuries, in Canada, it has remained a novelty limited to Italian cheese imports. Lately, though, a growing number of Canadian farmers and producers are challenging our prejudices with a range of tempting cheeses, silken ice creams and thick yogourts.
Edmonton chef Larry Stuart gets his buffalo mozzarella from International Cheese in Toronto, and serves it with fennel marmalade and bacon crostini at his recently opened mozzarella bar at Tavern 1903. “Buffalo milk has a beautiful flavour and texture,” he says. “People are amazed when they try it.” But without a Canadian source, he’s not certain he could offer it. “It took me five years just to find a good, consistent supply.”
“The sky’s the limit, really,” comments Vancouver Island farmer Anthea Archer. Anthea and her husband, Darrel, imported the country’s first river-water buffalo in 2000 and, against the odds, pioneered the small industry. The Archers raise and sell animals to Canadian farmers and supply B.C.’s Natural Pastures for its popular limited-edition cheeses. Never mind that the original herd they brought from the Netherlands was ordered slaughtered by the Canadian government in the midst of the BSE crisis of 2002; their enterprise has survived. A number of new farms have since appeared, from tiny biodynamic Sunnivue Farm, one of a half-dozen to crop up in Ontario in as many years, to major supplier On the Hoof in Quebec.
Demand for the cheeses is on the rise, especially for the mozzarella, styled after the high-end Italian cheese mozzarella di bufala. “When we started out, we were just depending on the people who had travelled to Italy or were really into the foodie movement,” says Natural Pastures co-owner Doug Smith. “But more people are trying it as they hear about it.”
Anchoring a classic Caprese salad or served with salted anchovies, lemon and arugula, bufala is the crown jewel of buffalo cheeses. Part of what makes bufala delicious is the freshness. It’s best eaten within a day of being made—with time, it goes from creamy to rubbery. Now local supplies of the cheese are solving the problem of stale Italian imports, which are often sold weeks after being made.
At a family-owned facility in Vaughan, Ont., Quality Cheese’s Albert Borgo and his crew produce the Bella Casara brand for stocking on supermarket shelves. “We’re the largest in Canada for buffalo ricotta,” he says—adding that, for now, it’s a “tiny niche.”
Exceptionally rich, water-buffalo milk is nearly 60 per cent higher in calcium than cow’s milk, and 40 per cent higher in protein. Although lower in cholesterol, it can have twice the fat. Little wonder that, once opened, that tub of maple-flavoured, super-creamy ice cream made by H.O.P.E. Cooperative in Ontario won’t last. Monforte Dairy turns out equally tasty goods such as Camembert-style rounds and a creamy beauty studded with pink peppercorns. Even Canada’s biggest dairy processor, Saputo, is dipping into the trend with a few cheeses.
Buffalo offer another kind of opportunity. “They saved the farm,” says Meservy. The former Alberta cattle rancher milks a herd of a dozen water buffalo and sells his fresh mozzarella to Calgary restaurants like the River Café. The animals offered him an alternative to beef farming, which was collapsing after the BSE crisis, and to the notoriously expensive cow’s milk industry, controlled through a quota system. Twice, he has had to shut down operations, but he’s certain that water buffalo has a future. “I don’t see why it can’t dominate the milk industries,” he says. Given its popularity elsewhere, why not indeed?