Water Buffaloes... in Tomales?
One of the latest efforts of farmstead cheese-making in our region takes an unusual yet traditional tack.
By: Robin Hug
Feb. 16, 2012
On a grassy hilltop in Tomales, California, Craig Ramini has taken his vision of handcrafting mozzarella cheese and made it a reality. But this is no ordinary cheese, nor ordinary man for that matter—Ramini Mozzarella is being produced in the traditional method using domesticated water buffalo milk from the herd that Ramini has raised.
If you peek through the fence holes around the bend on Gericke Road, you can see the herd of the docile animals and their calves soaking up the sunshine and grazing on the green grass that Ramini says is an important component to making good cheese.
Before the days of building a micro-creamery and raising buffalo, however, Ramini got his start far from Northern California, working on Wall Street as a stockbroker. He later moved into the software industry in Silicon Valley. It was there that he realized he was tired of corporate life and needed a change.
The idea of making cheese came to Ramini one evening over dinner. Ramini’s sister-in-law, originally from Italy, wanted to know why all of the mozzarella di bufala was flown in to the United States. Ramini said she was asking, “What is wrong with us? Can we not make mozzarella; is somebody afraid to milk a water buffalo?” That’s when it hit him that this was the venture, or rather adventure, he was looking for.
Thirty days later Craig Ramini sat down and wrote a business plan for Ramini Mozzarella. He then traveled to Toronto to interact with water buffalo, deciding that he did in fact want to pursue his idea. His research took him to Shaw River Buffalo Cheese Company in Australia’s Yambuk, Victoria, where he completed an apprenticeship handling water buffalo and which was followed by several trips to Italy to learn about the art of making mozzarella.
I met Craig back in June of 2011, when he was tending to his nascent herd of water buffalo on the 25-acre dairy that he leases from a retired dairy family. At the time, he was working countless hours building a creamery and transforming the property into a place that visitors can enjoy. He invited me into the pasture and began to tell me the stories of switching from a life of finance to a life of farming.
Ramini had to do his homework from the very beginning, and lots of it. Although he had a successful career that began straight out of college at Proctor and Gamble, learning how to purchase and care for a herd of large animals was unlike anything he had done before.
The original nine female water buffalo Ramini purchased arrived at the dairy pregnant and began giving birth shortly after. By the time I came for my visit, Ramini was introducing me to Linda, Audrey and Helen, the first female calves born into his herd. The babies are named after friends and relatives, but his original adult females are named in favor of “rocker chicks” from the seventies including Janis, Annie and Pat.
“This is Jimmy, after Jimmy Hendrix,” Ramini introduces me to one of his young steers. “He wants to play, but he is getting too big now and he could ?hurt somebody.”
“I love you but you are too big to play like that anymore; you are not a baby,” Ramini tells Jimmy as I try to take his picture. Jimmy moves closer and although his sweet face tells me that he is just curious about a new visitor, his 600-pound stature makes it a bit unnerving to snap his photo.
When doing research to purchase his herd, one of the first obstacles that Ramini discovered is that the Italians had been raising water buffalo on dairies for so long that the animals genetically evolved to be good dairy animals, whereas water buffalo in the United States are not bred that way.
In order to prevent this problem in his own herd, Ramini had Italian water buffalo semen imported, hiring a vet to artificially inseminate the newest females in his herd.
“My little starter herd, domestic U.S. water buffalo, is really raising the next generation of Italian water buffalo,” Ramini said. “As an entrepreneur you have to be willing to gut it out your first few years, wait for the genetic improvement to happen and be content with getting whatever milk they will give you, which won’t be tremendous, but it will be enough to get the business started.”
A big part of the water buffalo milk production depends on the food that the animals eat. In Tomales where the climate is fairly warm and the grass grows thick and green more months than not, it makes for ideal grazing ground.
“I had to learn a lot about grass; it is the beginning of the value chain. Good grass, good milk, good cheese. And it is amazing—there is a lot to learn about grass, ?it is not so simple, it can be pretty complicated,” he notes.
Ramini refers to the game of grass as “the new art of livestock and dairies,” noting that the old days of just putting the animal out in the pasture are gone, replaced with attention to rotational grazing.
Ramini moves his herd from pasture to pasture before the buffalo can eat the grass down, allowing the grass to replenish itself quickly and with as much nutrition as before. This is the basis for producing rich milk.
Females are milked twice a day, providing Ramini with about two gallons of milk. Buffalo milk transforms to cheese at about a 25-percent rate, which is higher than making cheese from other animals’ milk because of its high butterfat content.
Milk can be collected for up to three days before it needs to be transformed into cheese. At that point, Ramini pours the milk into the vat and begins to perfect his recipe.
Fast forwarding to present day, Ramini is barely shaping his first balls of cheese and is getting ready to introduce himself to the cheese world. If you pay a visit to this latest addition of the California’s Artisan Cheese Trail, you may find Ramini walking through the pastures with his ‘girls’ or behind the viewing window shaping his buffalo mozzarella.
The 6th Annual California Artisan Cheese Festival, hosted by the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma, March 23-25, features tours of local dairies, where you can meet the herds and taste the curds. One of the four tours visits Craig Ramini’s dairy farm and creamery as well as sheep and cow dairies. Unfortunately, this one was sold out as of press time. The lucky participants will meet Craig’s herd of water buffalo and be among the first to taste his fresh, farmstead, handmade buffalo mozzarella.
The festival also will lead two other expeditions. One is the Dirt to Dinner Tour and Feast where renowned chef Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, and others) is your guide along with Kuba Hemmerling, cheesemaker at Point Reyes Farmstead. A visit to Giacomini Family Dairy is capped by a chef demo and multi-course dinner with wine.
Another cheese-filled adventure explores the harmony between cheese and beer, incorporating a trip to Lagunitas Brewery and a return to ?the Sheraton (the driving is provided) for a cheese-inspired dinner ?that pairs wonderfully with Lagunitas’ specialty beers.
A sample of the seminars at the festival include a review of the latest artisan cheese makers, a discussion and sampling of the multitude of varieties of grilled cheese sandwiches available today (paired with wine), other cheese pairings, and—naturally—cheese making: Italian style cheese, fresh-cultured cheeses, and simple and fresh cheeses that can be created in one day.
Other highlights of the festival include Saturday’s Grand Tasting and Best in Cheese Competition events, a Sunday “Bacon, Bubbles and Brunch” with Duskie Estes, and the finale: Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace. Call 1-800-763-0344 for tickets or visit artisancheesefestival.com for more information and the full schedule and prices of events for the festival.