You are probably familiar with mozzarella cheese – or at least the term “mozzarella cheese”. In truth it is quite possible that you have never actually eaten the real thing, as authentic mozzarella is made from buffalo milk while the vast majority of cheeses sold as mozzarella these days are made from (far more inexpensive) cow’s milk. Whatever its source, its mild, slightly ‘stringy’ quality and wonderful melting texture make it a near-essential ingredient in good quality pizza, numerous pasta dishes and caprese salad, the simplest of which is comprised of slices of mozzarella and tomato layered with fresh basil leaves. Other ingredients can be added too though, such as garlic or balsamic vinegar. As with pizza and pasta, the mozzarella proves a suitable backdrop for a wide array of flavours.
The word ‘mozzarella’ derives from the Italian verb meaning “to cut”, which alludes to its method of production – more of which later. Given mozzarella’s importance to Italian cuisine – it has been produced there since at least the 16th century and very likely long before that – it is not surprising that much myths and folklore have sprung up around it there.
One such fable concerns a character variously known (depending on which story you hear) as Luigi, Josepe or even just “Mozzarella Boy”. According to the story, Luigi was born to humble parents in the 16th century, in a village close to the city today known as Salerno, in southern Italy. His father, also called Luigi, was a shoemaker and his mother Ysabel tended to the family buffalo. She would daily milk the beast, to produce mozzarella cheese, butter and other foods, while the father hammered away at clogs for his customers.
The concern about Luigi was that he never spoke. This was of course not a concern when he was born, as very few babies can speak at birth. In fact, none can, at least not intelligibly. Well, there are rumours of babies born and able to speak, but such rumours are generally associated with the occult, demonic possession and so on. Such stories have no relevance here, for although Luigi seems to have been born with a love for mozzarella cheese, there is no suggestion that this was the devil’s work.
Anyway, right from birth, Luigi seemed to love mozzarella cheese. This craving may have stemmed from an early experience, when he was less than a week old, when his mother was detained by the local guards on suspicion of stealing bread. She was quite innocent, having no need to steal bread due to her husband’s quietly successful shoemaking business. The whole thing was in fact a terrible misunderstanding and case of mistaken identity. The true culprit had been Maria, a local ne’er-do-well who bore a striking physical resemblance to Luigi’s mother. Such a resemblance was more than coincidental, as in 16th century Europe villages were small and there was little travel between them, certainly among poor people, with an inevitable higher level of – often quite inadvertent – inbreeding as a result. So a lot of people tended to look somewhat similar, and cases of mistaken identity such as that which affected Luigi’s mother were commonplace.
Interestingly, the level of inbreeding was high among humans for thousands of years, as communities had usually been quite small for most people throughout history, outside of towns and cities which began to form as society developed from a hunter-gatherer one to an agricultural and finally industrial one. There were also city-states associated with empire building, such as ancient Rome (then just known as “Rome”), when enough resources could be funnelled into the city that it did not need to be self-sustaining in terms of food production (among other resources). But ouside of such places, small villages and communities were the order of the day, and inbreeding was not uncommon. One of the things that changed this situation vis-à-vis inbreeding was the invention and popularisation of the bicycle. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a great expansion of the gene pool among the general population, as people could much more freely traverse to and from neighbouring villages, and indeed further afield, for their romantic encounters.
But back then, gene pools were small and many people looked alike, so it was no surprise when mother of Luigi, the “Mozzarella Boy”, was wrongly detained for stealing some bread which had in fact been stolen by Maria, a rather similar looking cousin whom she did not even realise was a cousin. Fortunately, the mistake was realised some days later, when Maria was detained on suspicion of an entirely separate crime – that of misrepresenting flour – and during interrogations she confessed to having stolen bread – ironically to make a sandwich with mozzarella cheese, although the term ‘sandwich’ was not then in use – a few days previously. Noting the physical similarity with Luigi’s mother, and bearing in mind both her continued denials and her husband’s good standing within the community, the guards released Ysabel.
During the few days that his mother had been wrongly detained, she was of course unable to breastfeed the boy. So his father, Luigi senior, was forced to feed the child buffalo milk. It is perhaps from being fed buffalo milk during his first week of life that young Luigi developed his love of mozzarella cheese, which as already mentioned is produced from buffalo milk in its most authentic state.
It is here maybe worth looking at the process of mozzarella production. Fresh buffalo milk (and indeed, any milk) if left to its own devices will generally begin to ferment, due to bacteria in the air. This can lead to uncertain – and usually unwanted – results. To speed up this fermentation process and importantly ensure that it ferments in the desired way (that is, in this case, towards a product that will result in mozzarella cheese), some live whey from the previous batch of mozzarella cheese production is added to the milk. The bacteria in the whey get to work and before “bad” bacteria take hold, the buffalo milk begins to develop and ferment in the desired way. Once it has ripened somewhat, rennet is added. Rennet is a substance found in the stomach lining of mammals, which assists in the digestion of mammalian breast milk in the young. When added to milk, it causes coagulation.
Once coagulated, the substance is cut (hence the word “mozzarella”, from the Italian “to cut”) and then left to firm up. It is then further cut (that word again) and warmed up so as to separate the curds from the whey. The whey is set aside (some of it to be used as a starter culture in the next mozzarella production, as detailed above), and the curds left to continue fermenting. As they ferment they become more and more acidic, meaning that the fermentation is a self-limiting process: while the bacteria multiply, in doing so they lower the pH of the milk until it is eventually too acidic for any more bacteria to survive. The milk thus becomes much more stable and less prone to spoilage. Thus all cheese making (not just that of mozzarella) can be seen as a method of preserving milk.
As the buffalo curds continue fermenting, they become firmer and more cheese-like. The cheese maker (in this case, Luigi’s father) then kneads the cheese, not unlike the way a baker kneads bread. This is what gives mozzarella its delicate, soft, doughy and almost string-like consistency. Once kneaded to the desired consistency, it is pulled and cut again, this time into rolls or plaits – again, not unlike the way a baker treats dough. To preserve the mozzarella in this lovely soft state, it is sometimes then submerged in brine. And this is the way you will often find it sold in supermarkets today, in a pot full of salty water.
Although current EU directives specify that cheese sold as mozzarella must be made in the traditional manner outlined above, they do not specify that it must be buffalo milk. So mozzarella you see in British supermarkets is – unless specified otherwise – nearly always produced from cow’s milk.
Anyway, young Luigi was fed buffalo milk right from his first week of life, or so the story goes, due to his mother’s wrongful detention. Once the mistaken identity situation had been sorted out and Ysabel had been released, she found to her surprise that the boy continued to crave buffalo milk over her own. Fortunately she had a plentiful supply to feed to him, as the family buffalo was bountiful indeed. Even once he moved to solid foods, the only food the child seemed to really enjoy was mozzarella cheese.
According to folklore, young Luigi ate heartily and ate well, but only foods that had mozzarella cheese in them. So he loved caprese salad (see above), pizza and cheesy pasta dishes. Sometimes he just wolfed down pure mozzarella, maybe seasoned with a little basil, salt and vinegar.
By the age of six, and now known throughout the village as “mozzarella boy” he still had not spoken a word, although apart from that he seemed bright and engaged. Then on the day of his seventh birthday, his mother made him a cake. In those days items such as sugar and flavourings such as vanilla were seen as luxuries, so this cake was a pretty big deal. Luigi, however, just stared at it before turning to his astonished parents and saying, in Italian, “Could I have some mozzarella cheese instead please, maybe with some bread?”
For a moment nobody responded, and his parents, mouths agape, just looked at him. Then they ran to him and swept him up in their arms.
“My boy, my boy, you can speak!” cried his father in delight. “But why have we never heard your beautiful voice before this day?”
Luigi looked down and thought to himself and then, so the story goes, fixed his father with a serious eye and calmly said, “Because everything’s been fine until now, what with mozzarella cheese for every meal. There really was no need to speak, father. But this cake… well, I know you’ve gone to a lot of effort and I do appreciate it, but I really only like foods made with buffalo mozzarella cheese. Could you perhaps make a cheese cake instead?”
Well, this is a popular story in Salerno and variations of it are common across southern Italy, from where mozzarella originated, and how much truth there is to it is impossible to say. As said, often the boy’s name varies from place to place and from story to story. But anyway, next time you bite into a slice of mozzarella cheese-topped pizza, or maybe a mozzarella, ham and tomato salad, remember both the story of “Luigi the mozzarella boy”, and also the enthralling production process of this soft, stretchy, mild and deliciously unique cheese.