Land of the Brooding Buffaloes

Never trust a travel writer
In Cilento, the buffaloes, the best mozzarella di bufala and fine wines are keys to unlocking the hedonistic Southern Italian character. The enigmatic Ancient Greeks have a lot to answer for.
– summary

I have no beef with buffaloes. They mooch, make mozzarella, then mooch some more.  But who knew these lumbering beasts were so musical. Giuseppe Pagano, a buffalo breeder in Paestum, plays classical music to his herd, all in the interests of happiness. “A happy herd means mozzarella that tastes of happiness.” Apparently, the buffaloes respond best to Bocelli and Mozart: “It’s the low sounds, the melodies, the sheer musicality that soothes them,” says the successful breeder.

These happy pastures are close to Paestum, the Classical ruins south of Salerno that mark the gateway to the wild Cilento coast. Paestum and the Cilento countryside represent the birthplace of mozzarella di bufala, the best mozzarella in the world, and presumably the happiest. Not that the brooding buffaloes show much sign of chirpiness. Maybe all the joy has been squeezed into the mozzarella. Maybe brooding means happiness in buffalo-dom.

Pisciotta, set in the Unesco-listed Cilento National Park
Pisciotta, set in the Unesco-listed Cilento National Park

Buffalo were supposedly brought to Campania by the Normans in Sicily, where Arab settlers had previously introduced them as beasts of burden. The Arab stallions won all the praise while the buffaloes did all the work. If so, the lugubrious buffaloes have been in Campania for over a thousand years, long enough to have left a mark on the literary landscape, too. Goethe visited the Ancient Greek temples of Paestum in 1787 and came across the brooding beasts: “We crossed brooks and flooded places where we looked into the blood-red savage eyes of buffaloes. They looked like hippopotami.”

Birdsong not buffaloes

Moody Paestum  © Parco Archeologico di Paestum
Moody Paestum © Parco Archeologico di Paestum

Paestum is still inexpressibly moving today, even if the buffaloes have been banished from the ruins. The 2,500-year-old Doric temples stand among the wild grass and poppy plains, with birdsong instead of buffaloes. For the Romantics, the Greek ruins of Paestum represented the final halt on the Grand Tour. The poets felt they’d stumbled across a lost world looming out of the inhospitable marshes. That sense of remoteness lingers on, helped by the modest numbers of visitors; most fans of ruins prefer to overrun Pompeii.

Once a port, Paestum was named in honour of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and founded in the 6th century BC by Greek settlers. Fittingly, Poseidon’s sanctuary, renamed the Temple of Neptune by the Romans, is the most majestic of the three structures still standing. Novelist George Eliot noted the way its warm, rosy-pink travertine “seems to glow and deepen under one’s eyes.”

Tomb of the Diver, Diving into Paestum  © Parco Archeologico di Paestum
Tomb of the Diver, Diving into Paestum © Parco Archeologico di Paestum

The onsite museum showcases the mural paintings from the Tomb of the Diver, dating from around 480 BC. The most enigmatic scene depicts an uninhibited diver, conceivably diving into the afterlife. Apart from being the world’s sole surviving Ancient Greek murals, the homeo-erotic scenes are frank evocations of Greek society. Languid couples gaze at one another in rapture, sip wine or play erotic drinking games. Presumably, drunkenness was no excuse for naughty behaviour as the Ancient Greeks always watered-down wine; only Barbarians drank it neat. As ever, there is no escaping the buffaloes: the revamped museum was part sponsored by Vannulo mozzarella farm, where I’m heading to next.

Mozzarella made easy

The Vannulo mozzarella farm stands out from the myriad dairies around Paestum. Italy’s most admired dairy farm boasts the happiest, healthiest buffalo, who never have to tolerate hormones or artificial insemination. A pair of rival bulls enjoy doing their duty. 

Not just is Vannulo the only organic mozzarella buffalo farm but it’s the one that best embraces the full visitor experience. This model farm provides an overview of mozzarella production as well as a chance to bond with buffalo. After watching the milking and cheese production process, you can call into the leather shop and the museum of farm tools. It goes without saying that the mozzarella tastings are exceptional.

Mozzarella di Bufala (buffalo mozzarella) from Cilento
Mozzarella di Bufala (buffalo mozzarella) from Cilento

Founded in 1900, this family-run farm respects tradition but moves with the times. The buffalo are kept in a fully automated environment, from feeding to milking, with health monitoring around the clock, and only homeopathic remedies acceptable. The herd choose when to move from milking robots to deep-tissue massage stations. When the buffaloes’ teats feel uncomfortably full, they queue patiently at the automatic milking machines. The buffaloes would make model citizens, unlike most stereotypical Southern Italians. 

The cosseted buffaloes get the star treatment, from music to massage. Deep-tissue massage while listening to Mozart must be better than most paid jobs. It’s a wonderful life, at least for females. Male buffaloes often end up eaten or as handbags. It’s scant consolation that the bags are gorgeous, hand-crafted from vegetable-tanned buffalo hide.

For me, an olive-oil drenched salad of buffalo-milk mozzarella, tomatoes and basil means that everything is right in the world. Sadly, the dairy's home-made mozzarella sells out by noon most days. It’s hardly surprising that this luscious, porcelain-tinged mozzarella is a world away from the plastic supermarket stuff. Stringy, creamy and oozing milk, it is richer in protein and calcium than cow’s milk. The high fat content and buffalo-milk protein also help give the mozzarella its distinctive pungent flavour. Luckily, produce from the 600-strong herd can be sampled at the farm cafe. Expect a feast of buffalo yoghurt, ice cream, cottage cheese, ricotta, creamy pastries, hazelnut and chocolate spreads - all made with buffalo milk, of course.

Wine with buffaloes

Cantina San Salvatore estate with buffalo logo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Cantina San Salvatore estate with buffalo logo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp

Cantina San Salvatore is the newest, most innovative of local wine estates. Curiously, it is also the estate that most plays up its buffalo-bonding and its Classical heritage. It was in Paestum that the Ancient Greeks began the colonisation of Magna Grecia and introduced Greco, Aglianico and Fiano grapes. All three varieties are integral to Giuseppe Pagano’s perception of his authentic wine estate and buffalo farm, set in the Cilento National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site, no less.

This hotelier turned winemaker delegated his hotel business to his son to focus on what he calls “the call of the land and my peasant roots.” The local-boy-made-good gets into his stride: “I define myself as a Graeco-Roman; my father was a winemaker on volcanic Vesuvius while my mother was a buffalo-breeder from Paestum.” Even if Pagano was a Paestum hotelier for 30 years, his childhood was spent shifting barrels in the family vineyard. The career change came about after a visit to a top Chianti wine estate where the hotelier marvelled at the silky expertise of the Tuscans. He felt that his homeland was lagging behind: “I saw no reason why we shouldn’t be able to achieve these heights too - and so my wine adventure began.”

Given his romanticised respect for the land, Pagano wanted the best: organic, biodynamic, sulphate-free wines made from native grape varieties. “Luckily, peasant traditions are still valued in Paestum and this isn’t an area affected by intensive farming.” His mother’s buffalo-breeding past came in handy as a blueprint for the new enterprise, a bold wine estate that also embraces a buffalo farm, orchards, olive groves, farm shop and authentic restaurant.

The first harvest was less than a decade ago but the wine estate is faithful to the founder’s vision and is a success on all fronts. We could be toasting success in San Salvatore’s Champagne-style sparkling rosé. Instead, we are sipping peachy, aromatic, straw-coloured Calpazio Paestum Greco, fig-scented Trentenare Paestum Fiano and fruity, ruby-red Paestum Aglianico.

Paestum is set in buffalo country © Parco Archeologico di Paestum
Paestum is set in buffalo country © Parco Archeologico di Paestum

In the land of the buffalo, there’s no escaping these lugubrious beasts. Pagano is built like a buffalo. The beasts even feature on the estate logo: “I saw a buffalo in the vines and drew him – we looked at one other and there was a deep connection.” Buffalo-bonding aside, I’m particularly taken with the mineral-rich Falanghina, which goes well with the creamy mozzarella di bufala from La Dispensa, the estate farm shop. “It would be foolish not to use buffalo manure to fertilise the soil,” smiles Pagano. “This land is only ungenerous to those who don’t respect it.”

San Salvatore La Dispensa, the neighbouring farm outlet, showcases the estate wines, organic olive oil and mozzarella di bufala, along with salami and ricotta from small producers. As a mozzarella addict, I cast my eyes longingly over the buffalo ice cream, mozzarella smoothies and buffalo mozzarella sandwiches. The deep-fried zeppole doughnuts filled with buffalo milk are a step too far. The good-value estate menu features fennel salad, pistachio and fig pie, or home-made pasta dishes rustled up by Southern Italian mammas. The ricotta with grape jam dessert is a true taste of the land. As owner Giuseppe Pagano confirms: “Our menus are simple but good, just like Cilento itself. And the wine is our best ambassador.”

I head back to the temple-like Savoy Beach Hotel, Paestum’s answer to Palm Springs Modernism. Architecturally, it may be Modernism manqué but there is no mistaking the friendliness of the welcome. Brooding buffaloes aside, big-hearted Campania can give most regions a run for their money in warmth. The wizened owner of the beach club next door even invites me to stay with him but, at least to a suspicious Londoner, it smacks of `friends-with-mozzarella-benefits.’ Tempting nonetheless.

A Taste of Cilento:

Paestum, a 90-minute drive from Naples (60 miles), is a springbord for exploring the rugged Cilento coast and countryside, both accorded Unesco World Heritage status.  

Vannulo buffalo farm, Paestum: : organic buffalo mozzarella farm, restaurant and buffalo experience.

San Salvatore La Dispensa (farm shop): . It doubles as the estate wine shop and restaurant, the place for tastings or lunch.

Cantina San Salvatore (wine estate): The San Salvatore biodynamic wine (and buffalo) estate near Paestum.

Savoy Beach Hotel, Paestum:  This modern, welcoming beach base (with new beach club in the dunes) acts as a stepping stone to the Cilento countryside and coast. Wines and produce from the San Salvatore estate find their way into the restaurants and bars.

Paestum (temples, Ancient Greek/Roman archaeological site): 

Santomiele fig farm (Prignano Clilento): :fig-tastings in a hamlet south of Paestum and inland of Agropoli.

Tasting Campania (foodie day tours):  Authentic experiences and food and wine trails in Campania. From a half-day street food tour of Naples to a full-day truffle-hunting outing in Irpinia or a wine and food trail, Giuseppe Guanci, the Australian-Italian owner, can also set up customised foodie tours.

ABTOI (UK tour operators offering holidays to Italy, including the Campania region):

Copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp. All rights reserved.
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1 Comment

  1. Bianchi Layla 03/09/17

    An instructive, amusing, "delicious" article which makes the reader' s mouth water.

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