Moo-ve over cows, bring on the buffalo

A farm in the South produces labaneh, mozzarella, cheese spreads and yogurt – except during calving season.

Buffalo 370 (photo credit: ILANA SRAIER-PHILLIPS)
Buffalo 370
‘Is there any milk?” Irit Treister inquires in all seriousness, following her daughter Neta’s request for a morning cup.
A fair question to be asked anywhere – except at the Buffalo Farm on Moshav Bitzaron, where milk is the livelihood of the dairy owners. But it appears that even here “the shoemaker goes barefoot,” as Neta animatedly describes how she was left without milk the previous morning.
This was due to most of the milk being used to make cheese, so if she misses the pasteurization, there is no milk.
Reluctantly, Irit drove to the moshav supermarket, waited until the coast was clear, and dashed inside to make her purchase, swearing the shopkeeper to secrecy.
When farmers Hagai and Irit Treister discovered that their citrus orchards and cow dairy were not providing a lucrative income, they racked their brains to find a solution. The small buffalo farms they had seen on trips to Macedonia and Turkey, as well as encounters with buffalo in Italy, prodded them to open their own buffalo farm. Frequent trips to Naples to learn the ins and outs of raising buffalo sowed the seeds of their new venture, and in 1995 a herd of 54 buffalo calves, 50 females and four males, made aliya, bringing with them a taste of Italy.
For centuries, the water buffalo (tao in Hebrew and jamus in Arabic) have been trudging through the rice fields of the Far East and working the land in Italy. In Israel they date back to biblical times.
Until 1948, about 5,000 jamus roamed the Holy Land, raised by Arabs and Beduin. After the establishment of the state, they were slaughtered for their meat and became almost extinct, apart from a handful that were brought to the Hula Valley upon being discovered after the Six Day War, in the area north of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
Today, the Buffalo Farm is home to around 400 buffalo. Cow and buffalo milk is produced in the dairy, as well as an assortment of products that are sold to supermarkets, health shops and restaurants around the country.
Surprisingly, the only noise to be heard in the buffalo quarters on Moshav Bitzaron is the whirring of fans and the sound of birds chirping in the surrounding trees. I stand in awe of the huge, stocky creatures with their curved horns, munching away at a mixture of straw and hay. “The water buffalo are very intelligent animals,” remarks Neta. “When it’s time for milking, they assemble by themselves.”
She recalls that when the buffalo were being moved to their present five-star accommodation, “their eyes filled with tears because they didn’t know what was happening. They cried, but they cried in silence… I saw a human in front of me.”
Anyone who’s been to the south of Italy most likely knows that the original Italian mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, not cow’s milk. A healthier alternative to cow’s milk, buffalo milk contains twice the amount of calcium, 40 percent more protein, 25% the amount of cholesterol and a higher percentage of vitamins, especially vitamin A. The rich flavor of Mozzarella di Bufala, one of several varieties of mozzarella cheese, comes from the fact that buffalo milk is higher in fat – a fact that Israelis are still having difficulty digesting.
“What they don’t seem to understand is that without fat the calcium won’t be absorbed into the body,” explains Irit.
According to her, the source of the Israeli ignorance stems from a lack of education.
“The problem is that we’re not responsible for ourselves… we project responsibility onto the food instead of our eating habits, how and when to eat, how much and how to go about it... It’s all a matter of education. and in Israel it doesn’t exist.”
For the Treisters, the seasonal factor is an added obstacle. The buffalo produce less milk around Shavuot, not because of the heat, but because of their relation to the calving season. Unlike cows, buffalo go into heat only twice a year. Almost all of them calve at the same time, and then the milk is plentiful. But as they get further away from the calving season, they produce less and less milk. In the summer, milking ceases two months before they become pregnant again, to enable them to rest.
“In the summer, there’s less mozzarella,” Irit points out. “Most of the mozzarella is in the winter. The Italians understand this, but in Israel, because it’s hot and cheese and light meals in restaurants and coffee shops are popular, we suffer, because davka [particularly] in the summer there’s less, and we’ve got less to offer.”
The Treister dairy operates in a traditional way. When it comes to producing labaneh, dairy bacteria are added to the fresh milk until it curdles. It is then placed inside cheesecloth for the water to drip out, leaving cheese. The cheese needs to be dried to enable it to be rolled into labaneh balls. This can be a lengthy process, but the Treisters refuse to compromise on quality by speeding it up.
Mozzarella is made up of layers of cheese. “It’s a cheese that stretches when heated and becomes flexible,” explains Neta. “Then it cools quickly and shrinks and milk is woven between the layers.”
The long elastic strands (pasta filata) are stretched and formed into different cheeses varying in texture and moisture, depending on the temperature at which they are made, how long they are stirred and how much they are stretched.
Apart from mozzarella and ricotta, the Treister dairy produces kosher labaneh, cheese spreads and yogurt. In the farm shop, Neta hands me a sample of the latest addition – frozen yogurt made from buffalo milk and yogurt. Although still being perfected, to the untrained tongue the rich, creamy white dessert with its 5% fat content is nothing short of a taste of heaven – and the mind can’t help but succumb to the senses.
To arrange a group visit call (08) 857- 4508.
SWEET CAPRESE SALAD 2 buffalo mozzarella balls
2 Tbsp. honey 4 Tbsp. dry white wine 4 sage leaves One thin, 2-cm. strip of lemon peel, without the pith Salt and freshly ground black pepper 2-3 basil leaves, cut into thin strips
Bring the honey, wine, sage and lemon peel to the boil in a small pot. Cook for around two minutes and set aside to cool. Arrange the cheese on a plate. Salt lightly, add a generous amount of pepper and pour the sauce over it. Garnish with basil and serve. Makes 2 servings.