As you stroll down the stately olive tree-lined drive of Tenuta Vannulo, a mozzarella di bufala farm in Italy’s Campania region, situated an hour and a half from Naples, you might be pleasantly surprised to hear the strains of Mozart floating over the fields.
What you probably aren’t expecting to find, however, is that the music is being piped into an open-plan cattle shed, whose residents – nearly 300 buffalo cows – seem to be living in buffalo bliss.
As the violins soar, the animals move from munching on hay towards revolving bristles that resemble those of a car wash. This is actually an automated massage machine, which the buffaloes can use whenever they please, before reclining on state-of-the-art mattresses.
And most curiously of all, when the females sense that their udders are uncomfortably full of milk, they trot over to a self-milking machine in the centre of the courtyard which identifies each beast, extracts the milk, and sends it to quality control at Vannulo Caseificio.
Mozzarella di Bufala Vannulo
The extraordinary set-up at Tenuta Vannulo is the brainchild of Antonio Palmieri, a 74-year old dairy farmer with white whiskers and twinkling eyes who can lay claim to having not only the happiest buffaloes in the world, but also to producing probably the finest buffalo mozzarella in Italy right here at Vannulo Caseificio.
‘I wanted to make the best mozzarella I possibly could,’ says Antonio, ‘and I realised that animals are like men: when they’re happy, when they’re comfortable, they produce their best work.’
For food connoisseurs, authentic mozzarella di bufala must come from buffalo milk – not cow milk – and, like specific wines and olive oils, can only be made in certain provinces in Central and South Italy, including Caserta and Salerno, and regions of Benevento, Naples, Frosinone, Latina and Rome.
However, the spiritual home of buffalo mozzarella is undoubtedly a few square kilometres within the province of Salerno, from the town of Battipaglia down to the fields of Paestum, where farmland runs out into golden sand lapped by a turquoise sea.
This is where Tenuta Vannulo lies, an easy bike ride to the beach in one direction, and a couple of kilometres from Paestum’s historic ruined temples in the other. Buffaloes were farmed here in Roman times and possibly even earlier, in the days when this region of Italy was part of the Magna Grecia, an ancient Greek colony established around 800 BC.
‘Buffaloes have been in Italy for thousands of years, but originally came from India,’ says Stefania De Luca, who has worked at Tenuta Vannulo for nearly 15 years, and now leads guided tours of the farm and Vannulo Caseificio. ‘We don’t think that the Romans went as far as India to import them, but the Greeks might have.’
Vannulo Caseificio in Capaccio, Italy
The buffalo farm was started by Antonio’s grandfather in the 1900s, but they didn’t make mozzarella di bufala – they sold the milk on to local dairies. Antonio’s parents continued in the same vein. Then, about 30 years ago, Antonio decided that he wanted to make buffalo mozzarella too, creating Vannulo Caseificio.
‘I always thought that if I got the right balance between tradition and innovation, I would be onto something,’ he says.
While Antonio is all about experimentation when it comes to treating the buffaloes and milking them, the buffalo mozzarella itself is produced by hand to this day and is completely organic.
‘We’re the only dairy farm in the region still making mozzarella di bufala by hand,’ he says. ‘And while machine-milking is normal in the industry, no-one else has our self-milking robots – I imported them from Sweden.’
Buffalo milk is prized to this day for its richness and taste – four litres of milk produce a kilo of buffalo mozzarella, half the amount of cow milk required to produce the same weight of cheese. And any product derived from the milk has more character than their cow-milk equivalents, Stefania explains – a creaminess and tanginess, with a touch of salt.
Vanullo Caseificio traditions
Every morning, a team of ten men take the milk from the day before and add enzymes to make it coagulate in the workshops of Vannulo Caseificio. The milk starts to solidifying after about 90 minutes and is plunged into boiling water to melt the fat. The resulting buffalo mozzarella is cut by machines into large pieces and then pinched, twisted and shaped by hand into small ‘bocconcini’, weighing about 50 grams each, 200g balls and traditional mozzarella di bufala plaits weighing half a kilo.
‘We have mostly men making the mozzarella, because it’s tough on the hands,’ says Stefania.
Elsewhere in Vannulo Caseificio, men check the milk samples and maintain the milking machines. ‘We haven’t actually substituted workers with automation,’ says Antonio. ‘They are needed on the farm 24 hours a day, but have different roles, rather than milking the cattle. I like to think that working with robotics and quality control gives them a more dignified role.’
The result has been not only 200 happy buffaloes, 50 content members of staff, but also a wildly enthusiastic clientele. ‘About 15 years ago, we started guided tours of the estate,’ Antonio says. ‘Stefania had just 500 visitors in the first year. In 2017, that number was 22,000, not counting the customers that also drop in to buy from the store.’
Tenuta Vannulo – Mozzarella di Bufala and much more
The 83-hectare estate has grown in ambitions over the last decade and a half. Antonio was the first farm in the region to start making yogurt from the buffalo milk, and now delectably creamy chocolate mousses, butter and ricotta are also sold in-house at Tenuta Vannulo. Buffalo milk ice-cream wows the crowds all year round in seasonal fruit and chocolate flavours.
A few years back, Antonio added a small chocolate factory behind Vannulo Caseificio, importing cocoa directly from Venezuela and investing in machines to toast and grind the beans. Finally, four years ago, Tenuta Vannulo launched its own restaurant, so that visitors could pause after their morning tour and eat products exclusively made on the estate, including home-grown vegetables. It’s essential to book ahead if you want to stay for lunch, and feast on creamy mozzarella di bufala, local wines, roast vegetable pasta tossed with salted ricotta, and homemade desserts.
How to visit Tenuta Vannulo, Capaccio, Italy
You also have to call ahead if you want to join one of the tours of Vannulo Caseificio run each morning in multiple languages, which cost just €8 per head and include a cheese tasting, and even book if you simply want to buy some mozzarella di bufala Vannulo – every day’s production sells out in a matter of hours, exclusively distributed from the farm shop to pre-placed orders.
‘I don’t sell my produce on to other stores,’ says Antonio. ‘I like to manage everything here.’
The other by-product of the buffalo farm is leather from the male calves. In typical style, Antonio decided that handbag and belt-making was another opportunity for excellence, hiring designers from Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana to fashion the butter-soft hides into elegant accessories. These can also be bought on site at Tenuta Vannulo and you can even peer through the workshop window at the master craftsmen, working the leather by hand.
Becoming the mozzarella king of Paestum hasn’t been an entirely easy ride, however.
‘When we first introduced the milking machines, it was quite difficult to show the animals how to use it. It took a long time. But now, the younger buffalos coming through watch and learn from the others,’ Antonio explains.
And isn’t he worried that the fast-pace of modern life will eventually overtake his unique, if eccentric approach?
‘I actually believe that this is an industry with a future,’ Antonio says. ‘Yes, it’s a high fat product, which may not be the latest fashion… but it’s quick and easy to eat, it’s tasty and provides energy. Most industries become obsolete over time, they get replaced with different technologies or approaches. I see no reason why mozzarella will ever cease to be made. It doesn’t have to be cooked – it’s perfect on its own, or with just a few tomatoes. And I think we’re doing something right.’
He gestures outside the window to the green fields, where swaying acres of grass and cereal are being grown to feed his buffaloes beyond Tenuta Vannulo. Elated customers emerge from Vannulo Caseificio and the farm shop clutching bundles of chocolate mousse, buffalo ice-creams and cloudy bags of mozzarella. And meanwhile, in a spotless cattle-shed, the buffalo are listening to Mozart.
Plan your visit to Vannulo Caseificio
How to get to Tenuta Vannulo: The farm is a couple of kilometres walk from local train station Capaccio Scalo. It’s not a difficult route, although it flanks some busy roads, and can get hot under the sun. A local taxi is a good idea. To reach Capaccio Scalo from Rome, change trains in Naples or Salerno.
Planning a visit to Tenuta Vannulo: write to firstname.lastname@example.org to book a guided tour, which take place in the morning. You can also call the Tenuta Vannulo offices on +39 0828 727894
To buy mozzarella di bufala Vannulo, or other products: Write to email@example.com or call Caseificio Vannulo on +39 0828 724765
Online sales / vendita online Vannulo: Online sales are not currently offered, so plan to go in person to collect your order.