When James Meservy decided to import his first water buffalo with the intent of making his own mozzarella, he had never even tasted a ball of the delicate fresh cheese. His motivation? "Desperation," says the Alberta farmer, "you get to the point where you are in so much despair and need to have viability in agriculture that you do some crazy things."
It may be crazy, but it's certainly delicious. The first thing that hits you about this porcelain white cheese is the aroma: When you crack the container, savoury, milky notes fill the room. The flavour of the cheese is big, even compared to the Italian classic. Think zinfandel compared to a pinot noir. Mouth-filling and saltier than the traditional, you taste sweet notes and a gentle tang, along with full, grassy flavours and a long, salted-butter linger. The texture is pleasantly delicate and yielding, though the current batch was a little too soft; it should never be rubbery, but needs to be supple enough that it can be sliced.
For two years now, Mr. Meservy has been making Canada's only farmstead buffalo mozzarella at his family's farm in Mountain View, Alta. While other Canadian buffalo mozzarella farmers (they are a select few) sell the milk to an outside cheese company, the Old West Ranch operation is a one-man-show, with Mr. Meservy milking the water buffalo, hand-stretching the cheese, forming the individual balls, packaging it and selling it.
The cheese-making requires about four to five hours of waiting while the bacteria works on the milk, until the curds become denser and pliable to the point where you can take a piece, immerse it in hot water and then pull it like taffy. Once it is kneaded and stretched to the perfect consistency, Mr. Meservy forms the cheese into balls, yielding about 330 each batch. This is known as the "pasta filata," or pulled-curd process. He's currently milking three buffalo and expects to be milking up to 12 over the next year. The immediate goal is to perfect the cheese's texture as he adjusts to the characteristics of a new season's milk and the quirks of switching cheese-making facilities this year (he shares the space).
In the mid-eighties, when Mr. Meservy was a boy, he lived through the devastation of having his family's beef farm repossessed. He made a pact with his older sister to never pursue agriculture as a career. Instead, he got a BSc in genetics and moved his family to Houston, Texas, to work towards a PhD and a life in academia. Still fighting an unshakeable link to farming, he and his wife, Debbie, moved back to Alberta in 1999 to take over her family farm when her parents retired. Mr. Meservy felt they had to jump in, "because I lost my family place and it would be tragic to watch 100 years of family history be lost."
Mr. Meservy says he doesn't miss beef farming at all, "the romance of what happens with milk and bacteria is intoxicating. It makes me giddy." Buffalo mozzarella was a choice that allowed him to command the market and make something locally that people could not experience elsewhere in Alberta.
With no formal training other than a reference book and a half-day spent at a Vermont mozzarella plant, he made his first batch of cheese in March 2010. Popping 10 balls of mozzarella into a jar, he started canvassing Calgary restaurants. The response was overwhelmingly positive, his mozzarella is now on the menu at the renowned River Café (among others) and sold at Janice Beaton Fine Cheese.
Mr. Meservy's next step is to find investors to help fund his own federally licensed cheese facility and sell across Canada. Until then, make sure you bring a cooler bag next time you're Alberta-bound (and let me know you're going).
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.