They stand there stock-still, looking mistrustful, their ears slightly pointing backwards. What’s on their mind? «They’re fine,» assures me Bruno Renggli, who must have felt my unease. Curiosity drives more buffalo outdoors. They amble from the loose stabling towards the water bath, their eyes still on me. They’re obstinate but good-natured, says the farmer. «They don’t listen to orders. They decide whether they want to do something or not.» He almost seems to admire them for that. If they feel under pressure, they simply lie down, at which point there’s nothing more that can be done: a full-grown animal weighs between 700 and 900 kilos. And if you do something they don’t like, you soon get to hear about it, courtesy of a well-aimed blow of the tail. «It’s best not to take a chance,» says Renggli with a knowing smile, adding: «Buffaloes can be vindictive.»
The animals originally come from South East Asia: they were brought to Europe – more precisely Romania, Bulgaria and Italy – hundreds of years ago. A Romanian migrant worker introduced them to the Emmental in 1996. There are now four buffalo-only farms in Switzerland, the Rengglis’ being one of them.
These robust animals are stubborn by nature, says Renggli. Their milk production cannot be increased with concentrated feed, nor can their milk cycle be adapted to the tomato season. The calves are born in the autumn, after which the cows produce milk for six to seven months. «Buffaloes produce around 2,300 litres of milk a year, compared to the dairy cow’s 8,000-plus litres,» says the farmer. The milk is mainly used for buffalo mozzarella, a fresh product that cannot be stored and is traditionally eaten with tomatoes in summer. That’s why Renggli freezes a large portion of the milk so that it can be processed when the tomatoes are ripe.
The Renggli farm is popular with countless clubs, companies and families during the warm season. After the guided tours, the Marbach Alpine dairy offers an aperitif with buffet featuring tasty buffalo specialities; depending on the weather, this takes place at the farm or in the dairy. «Visitors often combine their day out with a visit to the nearby dairy or a cable car ride up the Marbachegg,» says Bruno Renggli.
Some two kilometres away I find the yellow building housing the Marbach Alpine dairy. This is where buffalo milk from Bruno Renggli’s farm is turned into quark, natural yoghurt and various cheeses. Managing Director Michael Jaun guides me through the modern dairy, in which some 28 staff produce 18 types of cheese. «In terms of quantity, products made from buffalo milk are small in number,» explains the cheesemaker. That said, it’s this niche product that makes the Alpine dairy stand out.
«We start making the mozzarella at 2 o’clock in the morning,» reveals Michael Jaun. That’s because it’s a fresh product that’s already in the shops in the afternoon. «The acidification process is triggered by the addition of lactic acid bacteria and microbial rennet. The milk coagulates within half an hour. The curd grains are produced by pre-curdling with a cheese harp.» Two hours later the whey is pumped out, the curds are reduced again and melted using hot water heated to 80 degrees Celsius. The result is a large lump of dough from which the typical mozzarella balls are formed. «Buffalo milk is much thicker and coagulates faster than cow’s milk,» explains the cheesemaker. Its high fat content makes the products creamier, richer and more full-bodied. I sample it: mmm, simply heavenly! I then try various cheese specialities made from cow and buffalo’s milk – all Michael Jaun’s own creations.
It was lovely in the land of the buffalo. When Caprese season comes round again and I enjoy that yummy buffalo mozzarella from the Entlebuch, I’ll be casting my mind back to my wonderful visit – and to those big eyes with their quizzical look.