Ramini Mozzarella Brings Fresh Buffalo Cheese to the Bay Area with Love | CUESA

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March 19, 2021

Ramini Mozzarella Brings Fresh Buffalo Cheese to the Bay Area with Love

When husband-and-wife team Craig Ramini and Audrey Hitchcock founded Ramini Mozzarella in Tomales, they became one of few U.S. producers of authentic, Italian-style, 100% buffalo mozzarella and ricotta. Craig tragically passed in 2015, but Audrey has carried on their dream dairy, lovingly stewarding a herd of 70 water buffalo and pulling the artisan mozzarella by hand.

Ramini Mozzarella joined the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market last year, pivoting from restaurant sales to farmers markets during the pandemic. We talked with Audrey about her journey, why water buffalo are such special and unique animals, and what to do with fresh mozzarella di bufala when tomatoes aren’t in season.

Please tell us a bit about how Ramini Mozzarella got started.

My husband, Craig, and I met in 1992 in Boston. He was working for a tech company but didn’t like what he was doing. After we got married, we moved to California, and he kept working in tech but was miserable. In 2008, when the recession hit, he spent a lot of time reflecting on what made him happy, and he distilled it to wanting to spend his days around animals, working with food, and being an entrepreneur. That inspired him to look at making cheese. We stumbled upon the fact that nobody was making buffalo mozzarella in the United States, and the animal is just incredible. We came up with the idea in August 2008, and within three months we owned five water buffalo. We just dove right in. 

How did you get involved in the business?

I had my own career in architectural design, but I loved the animals and the business, so I learned everything by my husband’s side. We were having a great time building this little microdairy, enjoying our animals, and trying to perfect our product. Then tragically in 2013 he fell ill and was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At that point, I had learned so much about the business and was able to take over when he couldn’t work anymore. All the doctors told me he would recover, so I thought I just was going to keep the business alive for 6 to 12 months while he went through chemo, and then he’d come back. But it just didn’t go that way. He got a little bit better, then he got terribly worse, and by 2015 they put him in the ICU, and about a month later he passed away. 

I shut down the business at that time and found somebody to feed the animals. But some of the restaurants and wineries that really loved us held fundraisers, and everybody was encouraging me to keep it going. I figured I could either just shut the business down and walk away, or I could go out there and try, and if I failed, at least I’d know I’d tried. So with no money and no help, I ran the business entirely by myself for almost a year and a half. I slowly perfected the cheese, and slowly added a couple more employees and a couple more restaurants. I thought 2020 was going to be my year. Then of course, we got hit with a two-by-four called COVID-19. I lost everything—all my restaurants, all my wineries, all my farm tours. It was pretty devastating. 

How has the pandemic change your business model? 

I remember sitting at home crying, and then I suddenly thought, “I’ve got employees, cheese, and milk. I could do the farmers markets.” I had been reluctant to do farmers markets because the cheese has such a short shelf life. But in the desperation of COVID, I had no choice. I filled out a dozen farmers markets applications, and I got into four or five, and I got the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which was my dream. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the reception. 

Can you tell us more about the water buffalo and how you work with them?

When we got the idea in 2008, there were only a couple farms in the U.S. that had attempted to raise water buffalo, and both had closed their doors. That’s where we got our first five buffalo. Craig and I invested a lot of time into exploring why those companies failed, and seeing if we could fix those problems. The first problem is, you can’t just go out and buy trained water buffalo. They’re essentially kind of wild because they haven’t been domesticated or socialized. But if you are able to socialize them, they are the most dog-like agricultural animal out there. They love human affection, but if they haven’t had some experience with it, they get scared. They’re a herded herbivore, so if they feel threatened, they can become very dangerous. 

From the very beginning, Craig and I wanted to put the animal first. We operate from a philosophy of “pull, don’t push.” We want to pull our animals into the barn, not push them. We decided to maintain the relationship between the calf and the mother, and allow the baby 50% of the mother’s milk. The baby pulls the mother into the barn because all she cares about is being around her baby. Most dairies will separate the babies permanently, and milk the mothers and bottle-feed the babies twice a day. But we separate the babies in the evening, then put them to bed. We harvest the milk in the morning and bottle-feed the baby, then reunite the baby with their mother for the entirety of the day. So they spend the whole day together, then the baby gets the second milking. We have super healthy calves, and they have a social network, which means a calmer herd and happier animals. We decided to keep a small production and a small herd, so we do things like farm tours to supplement our income. 

You have some wonderful profiles of your buffalo and their personalities on Instagram. What’s the inspiration behind their fabulous names?

Craig and I shared a lot of passions—one was animals, another was rock music. After he passed away, I wanted to pay tribute to our life together in a way that would help me with my grief and leave another mark of him and our life together. So I alternate now between naming them after rockstars and after places that were significant to us because we traveled and lived in a lot of different places. I have Pat Benatar, Sarah McLachlan, and Nina Simone, but I also have London, Dartmouth, Ngorongoro, and Tarifa. Craig and I were married in Paris, and I have a buffalo Paris. Every time I say her name and go near her, it makes me happy. 

How are your cheeses made?

I hand pull the mozzarella, which is part of why I have such high-quality cheese. It means that I can’t really get higher production, unless I get a bunch of people pulling at the same time. Our cheese is made of milk, cultures, and rennet. The preserving liquid is salt, citric acid, and lactic acid. And that’s all you get in our product. We’re not organic because the land we’re renting isn’t organic, but we don’t add any hormones or antibiotics to our cheese. If an animal gets injured or sick, we do give antibiotics when needed to save lives. If we use antibiotics on any animal that’s lactating, we pull them out of the milk production. We love our animals and we want to be able to save their lives with whatever method we need.

How do you recommend people enjoy mozzarella when tomatoes aren’t in season? 

People often think mozzarella can only go with tomatoes and basil. In the winter, I tell people they can use sun-dried tomatoes and pesto. I love the mozzarella on sandwiches with a little prosciutto, pesto, and microgreens, or chopped up cold on top of a hot pizza. I find customers absolutely love it when I give ideas for what items to pair it with at the farmers market.

What does the farmers market mean to you?  

I’ve always loved farmers markets and could never figure out why. I pinned it down recently: It’s that the whole community comes out together during a specific time, and they know each other and they know where their food is coming from, as opposed to the grocery store, which is open all the time, you never know who’s going to be there, and people might be rushed and cranky. The farmers market not only brings you together with your food producer, but it brings you together with the other people. I love standing there selling the cheese and watching everybody. It’s just a beautiful community event.

Find Ramini Mozzarella at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Markets Market on Saturdays in the front plaza. The farm also offers tours on Saturdays. Book a visit on their website.

Photos courtesy of Ramini Mozzarella by Chloe Lagier and Birgitte Andersen, Focusnomore; and Ben Apatow.

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