All cheeses begin the same way, starting life as milk from a cow, goat, sheep or a buffalo. Once the water is removed, different processes are used to create all of the cheeses we have come to know and love.
We would venture a guess that every reader of the Italian Tribune is very familiar with mozzarella cheese, but did you know that it is included in a broader group known as pasta filata? These cheeses also include Provolone and Caciocavallo. Pasta filata translates as spun paste, referring to the method used to create the cheese and mozzarella and is named after its specific production process. In Italian, the verb mozzare means to separate. Mozzarella is formed by kneading and stretching, very much like bread dough. The fresh, mild cheese has a shiny, lustrous appearance and usually comes in a ball of various sizes. It can also be in the shape of a braid or a knot and can weigh up to five pounds or more.
Mozzarella originated in southern Italy. Early records show that the Romans were already producing a similar type of cheese from sheep’s milk by the middle of the first century AD. In the Province of Caserta, the monks at San Lorenzo Monastery in Capua used to offer bread and a cheese called mozza to worshippers during their annual pilgrimage. It is difficult to establish the particular decade or even century when this began, but the practice was already well-established by the advent of the Middle Ages.
Cheese made from buffalo milk dates to the 12th century, but sheep’s milk was still the predominant milk used for cheese in southern Italy. By the 14th century, fresh mozza made with sheep’s milk from farms in the hills of Campania were being transported and sold at the markets in Naples and Salerno.
It was not until the 16th century that water buffalo farming expanded and a switch from sheep’s milk to authentic mozzarella di bufala began. The word mozzarella first appeared in a 1570 cook book by Bartolomeo Scappi, chef to the Papal Court. He was very specific and referred to mozzarella as a type of cheese only made from buffalo milk.
The Bourbons of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies are credited with greatly expanding the breeding of buffalos in the Campania region during the 18th century. The royal family had a strong influence over the cheese that would win a special place in the hearts, minds and stomachs of southern Italians.
It was during the 20th century, when refrigeration allowed the cheese to be transported, that mozzarella became widely available throughout Europe and America. It saw an enormous surge in popularity worldwide following WWII. Mozzarella is now the most popular cheese in America and the second most popular cheese in the world. Due to the enormous demand, the vast majority of mozzarella is now produced from cow’s milk, which is milder in taste than mozzarella made from buffalo’s milk.