The Italian kitchen stays fervently loyal to its characteristic ingredients. Although every region across the country takes pride in different dishes, they are united in the fundamental feeling that the ingredients must speak for themselves. Each ingredient is used wisely and sparingly. Nothing should overpower; nothing should be hidden beneath stronger aromas; nothing should be added just for the sake of it. Harmony of flavours is the core principle, and supreme quality of the ingredients is key. Take one of the most basic, but most internationally adored Italian dishes: an insalata caprese. A caprese is made up of just a few simple ingredients: juicy tomatoes, aromatic basil, decadent extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and of course, mozzarella di bufala. When these ingredients are obtained from the very best sources, it’s impossible to make the dish even better: it’s already close to perfection. In fact, when mozzarella is crafted correctly–by hand and with buffalo milk from the region of Campania–it’s best eaten all on its own.
Just as champagne can exclusively be made in the eponymous province of France, the humble mozzarella also has regional regulations. Mozzarella di bufala, a DOP product (Denominazione di Origina Protetta or “Protected Designation of Origin”), can only be officially produced in Campania under strict regulations. This ensures that the product (consisting of just unpasteurised buffalo milk, water, rennet and salt) is made by hand in the traditional method, rather than by industrial means. The latter sacrifices the quality of the raw ingredient and the production process. A true DOP mozzarella must be made from buffalo milk, which contains no beta-carotene (the compound that gives other milks a slightly yellow, creamy colour), so real mozzarella can instantly be recognised by its pure white hue. Mozzarella should not be stringy or rubbery in texture. It should be molten soft. After cutting, tearing or biting into it, juices must seep from every pore.
The origins of mozzarella date back to the 11th century, when buffaloes were first brought to Italy by the Goth invaders. Eventually, Benedictine monks from the San Lorenzo monastery in Capua (about 25km north of Naples) began to produce a basic form of mozzarella (called mozza) as it was cheaper to produce than goat or cow cheeses. Since then, techniques for mozzarella production have been refined, but its roots remain firmly planted in the same region, where it’s served fresh in salads, fried as mozzarella in carrozza, and melted atop the region’s famous pizza Napoletana. But the cheese has also become a signature ingredient in dishes across the country: it makes up some vital layers of the parmigiana di melanzane, a Sicilian speciality; it oozes out of suppli, the deep-fried street food of Rome; and it is tucked into the piadine which hark from Emilia Romagana. Its versatility begets its widespread influence.
While, in theory, making mozzarella is a simple concept, perfecting it is an art form which often takes years of study to master. To make mozzarella di bufala, a small piece of the previous day’s batch is added to fresh buffalo milk. Slowly, a curd is formed as the craftsmen agitate the liquid, constantly swirling the mixture until the curd is broken into smaller pieces. The curd must then rest before the next stage begins. “She will tell us when she is ready,” say the mozzarella makers of Il Casolare, a respected dairy farm in Alvignano, Campania. Once “she” has reached a certain consistency, the craftsmen add hot water (94℃) and stir the mixture with a wooden paddle until it becomes a thick, churning mass. When “the feeling is right” (the mozzarella makers have an instinctual understanding), the craftsmen begin to hand-stretch the cheese into long, viscous strips, before separating them into perfectly-formed globes. Once the hot water has been added to the curd and stirred in, gloves cannot be used, because the heat would immediately melt the rubber and contaminate the purity of the cheese. Mozzarella makers are adamant that physical contact with the product is the only way to truly sculpt the mozzarella into the perfect shape. They are romantic about their craft and take pride in what mozzarella represents: an unpretentious southern Italian staple.
Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director known for capturing moments of pure italianità (“Italianity”), portrays a seductive mozzarella moment in his latest film, E’ stata la mano di Dio (The Hand of God), an ode to his Neapolitan upbringing. In a minute-long scene, we watch the film’s characters gather for lunch around an al fresco table under a vine-wrapped pergola. A gentle breeze surrounds the diners, who sit in the shade away from the palpable heat, their faces streaked with a few dapples of sun that have penetrated the canopy. The saturated colours add intensity to the lunch scene, the table is filled with Italian summer fruits, and pitchers of wine and terracotta bowls bedeck the long wooden table. There are a few empty spots on one end, which feel as if they were left free for us to sit and join the family’s summer lunch. For them, it is another casual afternoon; for the audience, it is pure heaven. In just a moment, the magic realism which underlies all of Sorrentino’s work begins (in this manner, he pays homage to Italy’s greatest filmmaker Federico Fellini). Sitting distinctly apart from the dining table, is “la signora Gentile”, a large Neapolitan caricature of a woman, described as “the meanest lady in Naples” by her long-suffering daughter-in-law. La signora is dressed in a fur coat in the height of summer. “Ha freddo?” (“Is she cold?”) the innocent teenage protagonist of the film asks. “No, she’s showing off her fur coat,” is the response. Suddenly, la signora starts engorging herself with a huge mound of mozzarella which drips and oozes onto the plate with every bite she takes. When she is warned that she will make a mess of her luxurious coat, she responds with dismissive profanities. And when asked to join the others at the table, she stays firmly in place, tucking further into her ball of white gold without stopping. She cares about nothing else but the pure and simple delight of the mozzarella.
With the poetic idolisation that is attributed to mozzarella by its creators, artists, and consumers, the product stands at the forefront of the unwavering logic of Italian dining. No other processed ingredient from Italy proves the argument for uncomplicated cooking more than mozzarella di bufala DOP. “Mozzarella” derives from the verb “mozzare” (“to separate”), referring to the last stages of the cheese’s creation. And when served at the table with a drizzle of olive oil, some basil and tomatoes, there is an instinctive need to “mozzare” the cheese once more. It is a cheese for sharing, or rather, for separating amongst everyone. Mozzarella di bufala represents the entire philosophy of Italian cuisine’s pure simplicity.