‘Sweetest animals on earth:’ Cheese maker shares his love of water buffalo | TheUnion.com

‘Sweetest animals on earth:’ Cheese maker shares his love of water buffalo

Laura Petersen
Special to The Union

A water buffalo bull named "Apollo" weighing upwards of 2,000 pounds ambled away from his herd to greet his owner, Italian-born cheesemaker Salvatore Capuano.

The massive animal nuzzled his head up to the man's chest for affection and petting, closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.

"I named him Apollo because he's so beautiful, like a god," said Salvatore Capuano, who raises 25 water buffalo on property he leases in Oregon House.

"They are the sweetest animals on earth," Capuano said. Spending time with the gentle giants helped restore his health after a work-related injury. Now he devotes his life to caring for the animals that give sweet milk in return.

Capuano dreams of opening a dairy in his rural community where his neighbors produce fine olive oil and wine and grow organic vegetables. This weekend, a special outdoor farm-to-fork luncheon will kickstart the funding for the project near and dear to Capuano's heart.

The luncheon, featuring a menu of water buffalo, artisan bread, local produce and Grant Marie wine, will be held at 1 p.m. this Sunday at Filaki Farms. Chef Gianfranco Maffezzoni of former Grass Valley restaurant Trattoria Milano will prepare the meal.

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An appetizer course will start things off with bread from Artisan Lavinia, aged cheeses and Capuano's water buffalo mozzarella, accompanied by Spanish melons from Filaki Farms and the last of the summer basil and tomatoes.

Then comes an Antipasto plate with Involtini di Melanzana (eggplant rolls stuffed with mozzarella), followed by a main course of buffalo roast (brisket and sirloin) with local potatoes and ratatouille. Dessert will feature panna cotta made with buffalo milk.

"People don't know much about buffalo. I want them to know it's a fantastic product. It's not something you can find at the supermarket," said Capuano.

Food is tradition

Growing up in Naples, Italy, Capuano was surrounded by really good food as a boy. Everyone shopped at outdoor markets. Merchants sold goods door to door and butchers called customers with daily specials. Everything was local and cheesemaking was in the family.

"It kind of was in me. I was always around that sort of thing," said Capuano.

While water buffalo have a long and honored history in Italy, it is debated how they got there. Some theorize that Asian water buffalo were brought to Italy during the medieval period; others point to Sicily, where Arabs introduced the animals. Fossil evidence suggests prehistoric European varieties; other theorists say pilgrims and crusaders discovered the beasts of burden in Mesopotamia. Wherever water buffalo came from, today they hold an important place in Italian cuisine.

For 400 years, Italians have made mozzarella. It derives from the procedure called mozzare — "cutting by hand," the process of separation of the curd into small balls.

Appreciated for its versatility and elastic texture, mozzarella is often called "the queen of the Mediterranean cuisine," "white gold" or "the pearl of the table." Italian laws protect the tradition of cheesemaking, its region of origin and recipes.

Water buffalo produce a quarter of the amount of milk as a traditional dairy cow, but nutritionally speaking, a water buffalo's milk is easier to digest and superior in protein, fat and mineral content.

When Capuano came to the U.S., he was surprised how difficult it was to find the taste of home.

"It took me quite some time to get acceptable cheese," he said. Knowing what good cheese tasted like, he started his own herd and began teaching himself the art form. Now he wants to share with others but is running into obstacles.

In the U.S., strict laws governing dairies make the cost and red tape prohibitive for small producers. That hasn't slowed Capuano's earnestness to make his dream a reality. For the event, Capuano is using his friend's licensed facility for milking and cheesemaking.

A changed life

After a work-related accident, the former engineering technician says his health was poor until water buffalo came into his life.

"For me it's mostly therapy," said Capuano. "I spend time with them whenever I can. They are very grounding when you touch them."

When they are grazing on wild and native grasses in the field, he calls to them, "Bambini," the Italian word for children.

The babies come running when they hear his voice, kicking up their heels and doing a little dance when they see Capuano. Each has a unique personality. They all know their names.

He calls to them, one by one — Maria, Sarah, Anastasia, little Fortuna.

"Fortuna is my favorite, but don't tell the others," said Capuano.

It's not a path he planned or ever imagined for himself but water buffalo stole his heart. Salvatore Capuano's infatuation with cheesemaking and caring for the herd are intricately tied.

"They healed me," he said. "They have really changed my life … For me, it actually is the same thing. It's all about the animals."

Do you have comments or story ideas you want to share? Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at laurapetersen310@gmail.com or 530-913-3067.

KNOW & GO

WHAT: Luncheon Fundraiser for Salvatore Capuano’s Water Buffalo Project

WHERE: Filaki Farms in Oregon House

WHEN: 1 p.m. Sunday

COST: $90 per person, kids free

INFO: Call Steven Dambeck at 530-701-3577; or email: sd@rt-consulting.com

Filaki Farms is proud to host a fundraising Luncheon for Salvatore Capuano’s Water Buffalo Project. This special luncheon takes place at 1 p.m., Oct. 15 at the farm located in Oregon House. There will be a guest appearance by a baby buffalo.

WEBSITE: Filaki Farms: https://www.facebook.com/Filaki-Farms-LLC-385680938110159/

Artisan Lavinia: http://www.artisanlavinia.com/

Grant-Marie Winery: http://www.grantedwines.com/

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