It was late when I finally arrived to a silent house, the mid-summer evening unexpectedly warm and lit by a creamy moon almost full of herself.
Leaving my wrinkled linen dress in a heap near the basement door, I ventured to the kitchen, opening wide the door to the back porch. Stepping into the balmy darkness, I was overcome by the heady scent of orange and lemon blossoms, almost making me ache for winter’s Meyer and Kaffir citrus circus.
Locating the marble match strike, its exterior deeply mottled from years of use, the long beeswax tapers were lit, their natural perfume the florid honey of illicit afternoon intimacy. Wearying of the silence, I let the live recordings of Wayne Shorter rip through the muted night, his tenor sax elevating the mundanity of rinsing a handful of Rainier cherries, the fat orbs bursting with the high notes of both sweet and tart. A steel container of gelato was pulled from the freezer and set on a wooden board to warm. Homemade the day previous, and by a hand distinctly more deft than mine, it was churned with fresh buffalo milk harvested from a Sonoma friend’s exotic bovid; her opulent gift slowly steeped with vanilla beans and cardamom pods.
Pouring two (and-a-half) fingers of bitter Amaro into a tumbler, I pondered that haughty water buffalo; her coat shiny black, long whiskers protruding from a thick snout ending at nostrils the size of tartlet pans, and a large, blocky head weighed down by two enormous horns the color and texture of cement. Her soulful brown eyes belied her air of superiority; prideful in her understanding that I had driven a considerable distance to score the good stuff from her. The milk of water buffalo boasts 8% butterfat, often twice the amount of that in cow’s milk, depending upon season. And she knows every drop of her milk is precious: a lactating water buffalo will produce only 2 gallons a day, while a lactating cow can offer 12 gallons.
Like cows, water buffalo are ruminants, feeding on plant-life for their nutrients, (as opposed to a feedlot conscripted cow’s industrial diet of corn and antibiotics). With a highly sophisticated digestive system, ruminants ferment the plants in one of their multiple stomachs, and then regurgitate it, and further chew this cud. This re-chewing is referred to as rumination and assists in digestion, thus processing the greens into high value protein.
With a worldwide population of just less than 2 million heads, water buffalo are classified as either Asian or African species. They are further divided into either swamp buffalo, often used for work in Asia’s hotter climes, or river buffalo, the preferred type for milk production.
The milk from water buffalo differs significantly from that of other ruminants, containing a higher content of fatty acids and proteins, along with more solids, rendering it ideal for making cream, butter, and cheese.
An Italian word meaning ice cream, gelato gets its fluffiness from being whipped with air, contains at least 3.5% butterfat, and is composed of 16%-24% sugar, which balances the water content to prevent it from freezing into a solid block (most ice cream in the US is 12%-16% sugar). In the late 1600s, Sicilian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltello perfected the world’s first gelatiere machine, introducing the world to the wonders of churned dairy.
Refilling my now-empty tumbler of Amaro with more of Calabria’s finest, I pulled up a spoon to the steel container, the gelato now soft enough to reveal its consistency of whipped clouds, and warm enough for the woody, sweet-earth aromas of Tahitian vanilla bean to bloom. The unmistakable palate tingle of cardamom transported me to long ago Sunday mornings of coffeecakes and cartoons. It was, however, the nectar of rich, ambrosial baked milk that had me swooning; once again staring into the eyes of that massive, magnificent, black beast, the water buffalo.