"Sorry," says Nick Hodgetts, "but we seem to be out of milk." Not what you would expect in a dairy. "Hang on," he adds, pulling on what looks like a plastic shower cap, disappearing from his office into the cheese production unit and re-emerging with a jug. "Is goat's all right?" "I'll have it black," I say, ungraciously, but wisely as it turns out. The coffee's too good to pollute with milk of any kind. Yet its sheer power fails to overwhelm the sliver of Malvern Cheesewright's Original Buffalo cheese, based on a 17th-century ewe's milk recipe for Wensleydale, which Hodgetts hacks from a white wedge with a cloth-bound rind. It proves to be creamy, nutty and deceptively mellow, before the lactic tang kicks in. This is a cheese that bites back.
A full-flavoured English bitter would go with it beautifully. Which is what Hodgetts has in mind when he gives a talk and tasting on buffalo-milk cheeses at next weekend's British Cheese Festival in Stow-on-the-Wold. The recommended accompaniment will be Tickle Brain beer from Burton Bridge Brewery in Staffordshire, which weighs in at a formidable 8 per cent alcohol by volume. "A strong-willed cheese needs a hefty beer to go with it," he says.
Ten years ago, his dairy in Whittington, Worcestershire was the first in Britain to turn buffalo milk into cheese. Today there are at least half a dozen producers making around 26 varieties between them. At the award-winning Shepherds Purse Cheeses in Thirsk, Judy Bell makes the only blue cheeses in Yorkshire, the latest of which, Buffalo Blue – more like a St Agur than a Stilton – uses milk from nearby Northallerton. "It's very creamy, yet cleansing on the palate," she says. Buffalo Blue is available in Lewis and Cooper of Northallerton – the Fortnum and Mason of the North – and other delis in Yorkshire and Cumbria.
The ubiquitous mozzarella is the best-known cheese made from buffalo milk. "Jamie Oliver has done more for mozzarella than we could have hoped for," Nick Hodgetts says. "Two years ago, we started producing a variety of our own. It took us a long time to get a product that we could be proud of."
Sandra Allwood buys in buffalo milk from North Wales, 20 miles away from her Raven's Oak Dairy in Nantwich. Some she turns into a Brie-style cheese called Brindley, the rest into a fresh "French-market type" cheese called Spurstowe. "It's similar to mozzarella," she says, "except that it's softer, with a mousse-like texture which makes it brilliant for grilling." Both cheeses should be stocked by Booths supermarkets in the north of England and on the stalls at London's Borough Market.
Buffalo milk suits mozzarella perfectly, as the Italians have known for generations. "It's naturally homogenised with small fat globules spread throughout the cheese, which makes it lovely to work with," says Hodgetts. "Our summer milk is probably better quality than that in Italy or Romania." Despite the fat content, the milk is thought to be low in cholesterol and high in calcium. Add in its value as an alternative for those with an allergy to cow's milk and it's no wonder that the cheese varieties it spawns are sometimes found in health shops as well as delicatessens. "There are significant numbers of producers out there now; enough to warrant a separate class in our awards," says Juliet Harbutt, who runs the British Cheese Festival. "The milk's not cheap, so, when they make a cheese, they make sure it's a good one."
In the same county as Monastery Cheese, from her own 100-strong organic herd on Higher Alham Farm, in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, Frances Wood produces Junas, an unpasteurised semi-hard cheese, similar to manchego, and Iambors: semi-soft, almost feta in style. She sells these to delis, health-food shops and farmers' markets in London.
One of the best buffalo milk cheeses, stocked by 30 Sainsbury's stores as well as delis, is produced at the other end of the country. Ribblesdale Original Buffalo was developed by father-and-son team Iain and Adrian Hill from a goats-cheese recipe devised five years ago by Iain's wife, Christine. He describes it as "close-textured and meaty". It has a full, almost sharp flavour with a rounded after-taste.
Foot-and-mouth has already taken its toll on one of the buffalo herds in the UK. There are now eight left. Nick Hodgetts doesn't have his own buffalo, but the largest, 250-strong herd is across the Warwickshire border from his dairy. Strange to see these water buffalo, with their drop-handlebar horns, staring back at you from undulating farmland somewhere between the Cotswolds and the Dassett Hills. Bob Palmer imported them from Romania 10 years ago when he realised that he could get almost three times as much milk quota than he could for his Jersey cows.
"Every obstacle was put in front of us. The Ministry of Agriculture did everything it could to stop buffalo farming getting underway in the UK," he recalls as we look out over English fields from his Romanian-style ranch house. Ten years on and he's looking to expand. At the same time, he is aware of another six farmers in the process of trying to import buffalo. "Our predictions are that there is scope for 60,000 to be milked in the UK, compared with under 2,500 today."
Though there's far more to British buffalo milk cheese than mozzarella, not all of that milk will find its way into cheese of any variety. The milk also makes excellent yoghurt and is the preferred choice of Asian sweet makers.
The British Cheese Awards and Festival, Stow-on-the-Wold, 28-30 September will feature Britain's largest cheese market. Programmes are available in branches of Waitrose, this year's sponsor. Nick Hodgetts' talk, 'Buffaloes, Tickle and Cider' is at 3.15pm on the Saturday, in The TalbotReuse content