words: Judy McAuliffe images: Alasdair Jardine @JardineMedia
Buffalo have been sung about, they appear on coins and are part of North American folklore, but the American buffalo are actually bison. Buffalo are an entirely different species. Did you know that we have them right here in New Zealand? – in fact, in (or very close to) Ashburton?
Owners of Wairiri Buffalo, Lucy Appleton and business partnerChristo Keijzer have been raising and breeding buffalo since 2008, and so began their cheese adventure that now sees them producing world-class mozzarella for high-end restaurants.
I’m feeling the need for some loud, classical music, as I drive through wild, untamed countryside and arrive at Wairiri Buffalo, perched below the mountains, alongside the Hororata River. What a magical spot!
So how does a girl with a background in small business and an airport maintenance engineer end up making mozzarella? They laugh. “It’s been a fun journey. We initially bought the land with only a vague idea of what we wanted to do with it. There’s quite a high rainfall here and the soil is too soft for dairying – so we looked for an animal that suited the climate and that’s when we decided on buffalo.”
Starting slowly, they built their dairy herd from Australia and the North Island and now have 55-60 animals, of which 18 are milkers. “We built the milking shed in 2012 and started milking in 2015. In 2017 we installed the robotic milking system – that’s’ when we really got serious,” Christo smiles.
Milking is a fully automated, twice-a-day, year-round process. When the cows are ready, they wander in, the robot reads their tags, takes all their data and the milking machine hooks on. “The robot knows everything about each animal, it registers anything that might be amiss.” Once milking is complete, the machine unhooks and the animal walks out.
Lucy, who trained in Italy, uses the milk to make mozzarella, feta, halloumi, ricotta, yogurt and other products, in a custom-built cheese room beside the milking shed. “Bringing that working knowledge from Italy back to New Zealand and making it work wasn’t as easy as it sounds,” she smiles. “Everything is different here. In Italy, the buffalo are kept inside, and grain fed, which makes the protein content of the milk much higher, so the cheese holds together better. It was a huge challenge to convert what I learned there and then make it work here with pasture fed milk.”
“They don’t pasteurise In Italy either, and they use a fresh culture, whereas we pasteurise, and we don’t use a fresh culture. They’re making cheese every day so they can keep their culture going, and if their culture fails, they can just go to the farm next door and get another. We don’t have another buffalo farm next door. We use a culture developed especially for us out of the Campanian region).”
The word mozzarella comes from the Italian term “to stretch” which is what happens in the cheese room. The mozzarella is taken from the vat to the stretching table and a team of six set to work, stretching and shaping. “There are a variety of things happening here,” Lucy says. “Today we’re making pizza mozzarella, Burrata and Stracciatella.”
At my blank look, she explains. “Burrata is a combination of pulled mozzarella and fresh cream wrapped in a thin skin of mozzarella; Stracciatella is pulled buffalo mozzarella put into buffalo cream, then put into a mozzarella ball. You warm it It’s to die for! What we make today, will be gone by tomorrow morning, which is ideal. Mozzarella should be consumed within a few days of being made.”
Wairiri have a waiting list of restaurants eager to use their products. “You can’t hurry a good thing,” Lucy says. “Kiwis are very open to trying new things. One chef put it with wakame(seaweed) and wasabi, which was a fantastic dish. An Italian Mama would fall off her stool and die from a heart attack if she heard of such a thing,” she laughs.
Besides selling into restaurants, Wairiri Buffalo products are also available online, and from several fetes and farmers’ markets. The most sought-after product is the mozzarella, although Lucy says they all sell well.
Consistency is crucial to Wairiri’s success, consistently good product and consistent supply. The cheese room runs three to five production runs per week, depending on orders. To achieve this Christo calves a couple of cows every month. This way, the herd is growing, and the milk supply is assured.
On the day of my visit there were four, two and three-day-old boy babies, already sold to people on a waiting list. “We keep the girls and hand rear them. The boys are in demand usually from people on lifestyle blocks who want them for meat, or to keep as a novelty. They look impressive with those big horns, but they’re actually very tame and very easy-care – they’re extremely lazy animals. Sometimes they can’t even be bothered getting up,” he grins. “They can totally wreck normal fences, but they recognise electric fences. They’ll also recognise if fence is turned off and charge straight at it.”
Buffalo are capable of living off a fairly frugal diet, but animal welfare is always top of mind. They feed out silage and hay when feed is low and have recently introduced mixed crop plantations of several different species. “It’s a really interesting concept,” Lucy says. “The different root systems are at different depths and they work like a network, so the roots break the soil open introducing oxygen and the variety of species allow the animals good health.”
The company, including the staff, are passionate about healthy, high-quality farming, high quality food and the symbiosis between a farm being healthy and what that gives to the consumers, healthy humans, and what they can give back to the farm. That’s our overarching philosophy.”