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Where the buffalo moan (with pleasure)

At Vannulo Farm in Campania, they believe happier buffalos make better mozzarella.

Water buffaloes pose for a picture as they receive their daily massage at the the Vannulo Farm stable. (Fulvio Paolocci/GlobalPost)

CAPACCIO, Italy — In the Middle Ages, Neapolitan monks offered fresh buffalo cheese to pilgrims visiting the monastery. Later, the word “mozzarella” would show up in a menu for the Pope dating from 1570.

Today, in the southern region of Campania, buffalo mozzarella is easy to come by and represents a multi-billion-dollar industry. Unlike the processed cow-milk cheese that strings from our pizza, these milky balls are slowly processed for hours until they become a natural concentration of fat, protein, minerals and flavors.

“I always say mozzarella has 99 flavors,” said Antonio Palmieri, a mozzarella producer from Campania. “You can taste those flavors from the milk itself, without having to add anything, neither salt nor oil.”

His purist philosophy has made him a millionaire. Insistent on making the perfect buffalo mozzarella, Palmieri has transformed his organic farm into a kind of free-range buffalo resort, with neither the smell nor look of a typical buffalo farm.

Palmieri likes to break boundaries. After spending years perfecting his organic mozzarella, he invented the first-ever buffalo-milk-based yogurt and gelato. This has made his customers uncommonly loyal.

On a recent summer day, I tasted the apricot yogurt on a spongy brioche, followed by a creamy hazelnut gelato. As I stood at the bar, the slender and tall Palmieri walked in wearing a white Panama hat, and sipped his coffee under a heavy gray moustache. Star-struck customers rushed to greet him, yelling, “complimenti, complimenti,” Italian for congratulations.

“Naively, people think good mozzarella is born from the hands of a skilled cheese maker,” said Palmieri. “That too, but most of all it comes from quality milk.”

At the Vannulo Farm, which Palmieri’s family has owned for three generations, tradition has never gotten in the way of innovative thinking. Last year they applied Swedish technology, invented for milking cows, to the sturdy, but much friendlier water buffalo.

Operated by computerized machines, the milking stations allow buffalos to be milked at their convenience. Like pudgy ladies waiting in line to deposit at the bank, female buffalos wait for their turn at each of the milking stations. Every buffalo wears a chip around her neck that contains personal information and an exact map of her teat.