00:00 Saturday 26 March 2011  Written by BY CATHERINE KETCH

Little Italy for Toons Bridge

Plans to produce mozzarella cheese from buffalo milk

TOONS Bridge in the Lee Valley is set to become Ireland's Little Italy as plans by a local partnership to produce mozzarella cheese from buffalo milk are well under way.

Food distributor Toby Simmons of the Real Olive Company and local dairy farmer Johnny Lynch have teamed up to produce Ireland's first buffalo mozzarella for the Irish market. Toby has been importing mozzarella cheese for some time but is well aware that it is a food that is best served fresh, in fact as fresh as possible.

It was during a few St Patrick's Day pints that Toby first mooted the idea to his neighbour, Johnny, whose first reaction was 'no way'. Johnny later asked Toby about it again and Toby had forgotten he had even mentioned it but eventually both found themselves on a plane to visit some of the UK's 14 buffalo farms. A trip to Italy followed.

They've since invested and Johnny has bought 31 buffalo from Italy followed by another 16. Now ten have calved out of 19 and a further 25 will go in calf, hopefully this year, to provide a constant supply of milk.

These are water buffalo which originated in India and are no relation to the wild American buffalo. They are wonderful, placid creatures and have proven much easier to care for than their bovine cousins, the Friesian dairy cow. 'They are way more relaxed than cattle,' Johnny says.

They eat 10-20% less but give 2,000 to 2,500L of milk in comparison to 6,000L from a dairy cow. However, there's 8% butterfat in comparison to a cow's 3.8%, up to 5% protein as compared to 3.5%, and buffalo has half the cholesterol of cow's milk or beef. Friesians will milk for 8-9 years whereas these will last for 20-25 years.

They are stronger than cattle and must keep their horns as this is how they sweat.

Have thrived

'In the summer, if there was a stream of water, they would be lying down inside in it. They love it,' says Johnny. They can even eat weeds six feet under the water,' he adds.

In Italy the animals are kept indoors in very intensive conditions all year round. Kept outdoors in Toons Bridge, the buffalo have thrived, putting on 60-80kg in a year.

The next step is to get the cheese right. This is a process of trial and error and batches of feta, cream cheese and yogurt are literally being churned out at what is appropriately the old creamery in Toons Bridge. Johnny's pigs are getting fat on the proceeds and the learning continues with the help of other local cheese makers, including the Willems of Coolea Cheese.

'Everything up to this point had made sense and I'd be fairly confident that we can work out what is going wrong here,' said Toby, who was just two weeks into the experimentation with the new mozzarella cheese.

Having started 18 years ago importing olives to the English Market, Toby now has a distribution system the envy of any artisan food producer and it's all systems go once the mozzarella is right.

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