Food, Pizza, Politics

A boil-down on buffalo mozzarella purism

The Times of London reports that Italian Minister of Agriculture Luca Zaia has dissolved the mozzarella di bufala campana consortium after a series of inspections revealed that “25 per cent of the cheese sold as buffalo mozzarella was fake because it contained 30 per cent cow milk.” Mozzarella di bufala, with its wonderfully funky water-buffalo-milk notes, is one of the main ingredients in some versions of margherita DOP pizza (although it’s not, as Alan Richman has wrongly stated, a required ingredient). It’s also frequently served raw as an appetizer, either on its own or with ham.

Benito_MussoliniThe Italian Ministry of Agriculture has a recent history of operating at the curious intersection of neofascism and culinary purism. Zaia’s “zero-tolerance policy” on food fraud became famous with his 2008 bust-up of cheating Brunello di Monalcino producers, which was hailed as a victory for consumers. But in a less-reported crackdown the following year, Zaia, a member of the extreme-right-wing Lega Nord—the political party that has advocated the seccession of Northern Italy—also instituted, with Berlusconi’s backing, a policy banning new “ethnic” restaurants from opening in certain northern Italian cities, including Lucca and Milan. It was a move that the left-wing newspaper La Stampa called “culinary ethnic cleansing.” Reporting on the policy, the Times of London quoted Lucca city spokesman Massimo Di Grazia as saying that “French restaurants would be allowed”; he was “unsure, though, about Sicilian cuisine. It is influenced by Arab cooking.” Continued the Times: “Asked if he had ever eaten a kebab, Mr Zaia said: ‘No—and I defy anyone to prove the contrary. I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto. I even refuse to eat pineapple.’” This, from the country’s Minister of Agriculture.

Sometime in 2001 or 2002, I recall meeting, and discussing pure-ingredient fervence with, Giorgio Alemanno, who was Italy’s Minister of Agriculture at the time (this was two Ministers ago). The man talked about wine with great passion. And like Zaia, he was also an absolute right-wing zealot. As mayor of Rome, Alemanno was famous for praising Mussolini, expelling immigrants, and mowing down gypsy camps. “Upon his election,” reported the Telegraph at the time, Alemanno “was greeted by crowds of supporters, among them skinheads, who chanted ‘Duce! Duce!’ and raised their arms in a fascist salute.” It’s interesting to see Zaia, with Berlusconi’s backing, continuing in this tradition.

Certainly, when we buy mozzarella di bufala—or Brunello di Montalcino—we want to get the real thing. But if we’re enjoying what’s sold as Brunello or bufala, and feel like we’re getting our money’s worth, is the cow/Cab crime really so great?

I’ve previously discussed the thorny issue of the overzealous advocacy of a traditional recipe to the exclusion of all others. In response to Florence Fabricant’s claim, for instance, that “for any pasta all’amatriciana to be authentic, it must be made with guanciale (pork jowl),” not bacon or pancetta, I responded that “too many food writers construct a counterfactual Italy of culinary dogmatism, a population of finger-wagging guanciale zealots, a nation…harrumphing around about how the world is going to shit now that people are making amatriciana with pancetta…People and recipes aren’t anthropological tokens. They’re living things, the products of neural assemblies and proteins and chemicals bouncing across the ages. Narrow your gaze and squint your eyes too tightly in the search for authenticity, and you might miss that whole, beautiful landscape.”

Perhaps I should revise this statement: clearly, there are some finger-wagging guanciale zealots in Italy. They tend to gravitate, it seems, toward the Ministry of Agriculture. The question of whether “zero tolerance,” when it comes to food, is fascist, patronizing, noble—or all three—is certainly one for further contemplation.


  1. I am of a few mi9nds on this issue.

    First, if it’s not what it says it is, then the name is a lie. I don’t think food and wine producers should be allowed to lie to consumers.

    Second, sure, if you like it, you should just eat or drink it–but you should also not lie about it, as in grocer or restaurant charging a lot of money for something that isn’t what it claims, and even costs less to produce.

    Third, I don’t find it overzealous for the government agency responsible for establishing and maintaining the rules of honesty in food and wine to penalize those caught breaking the rules.

    Fourth, purism is fine, as long as it allows competition from non-purist methods and then lets each stand on its merits. But purism that excludes is not nice at all.

  2. Cleetus

    I agree with just about everything Thomas says. I think producers shouldn’t lie, and that non-purists deserve to compete in the marketplace and shouldn’t be excluded.

    This presents at least one problem for which I don’t have an answer. How should the non-purists be allowed to label themselves? For instance, should there be such a thing as “‘Almost’ Buffalo Mozzarella”? Does that necessarily beget “‘Almost sort-of’ Buffalo Mozzarella” further downmarket?

    Good problems to have, I suppose.

  3. We just like to, as italians and as Buffalo Mozzarella importers in UK, to precise that ZAIA is a Leghista, a man from the north, who as party logic has to see central and south Italy as part of Africa.

    And not many people knows, that he goes in the DOP area of the buffalo mozzarella and found out that some dodgy factory, use cows milk too to implement productions, well spotted after 30 years. But in reality, why now?
    Apparently many mozzarella factories are planned to open in the north and some already opened making buffalo mozzarella, so its time to trow some dirt at our people and look good in the public and international eye.

    When the reality is that they will start doing the same, after a couple of years of business. They don’t care about the quality, its a great business anyway.

    We have imported top quality 100% Buffalo Mozzarella in Uk from the DOP area in Campania and know all the scams and nonsense who surround this amazing product.

    Mozzarella for some its a business, for some is a passion.

    If North Italy want to join the scam industry please join in, because if we are talking of actually making buffalo mozzarella i believe that they would not have a clue.

  4. I am Italian, I produce and import extravirgin olive oil and I am all for the 100% clarity in food: if you make buffalo mozza, that must be true buffalo mozza, if you make Brunello, that must be Brunello… all the producers frauding on food must be closed and sent to jail.
    Whether to use pancetta tesa or guanciale to make amatriciana (from Amatrice near Rieti) is a different level of purity… that goes very near the “taste fascism” as you like to put it. I simply think it is fun sometimes to make the recipes as they were meant to be made, it is just like playing bach with old instruments tuned as they used to be. That’s why I would like to call this, rather than “taste fascism”, “taste philology”

  5. è vero nel campo dei formaggi in genere c’e una seri di frodi difficilmente
    scopribili se non si analizza a fondo, come per l’olio di oliva.

  6. Maybe I should review this sentence: obviously, there would be some all opposition guanciale zealots in Italy. They usually sink, seem to agriculture. A question: “zero tolerance,” when it comes to food, is the fascist, self-righteousness, noble – or all three – is of course to further thinking.

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