Saturday, July 2, 2011

The First Mozarella di buffala cheese in Wisconsin -- our visit to the source.

     On Memorial Day, the holiday, we made a drive from Milwaukee to visit a very interesting family in Plain, WI. This story has been written in the Jewish Chronicle and in the Journal Sentinel, both newspapers in Milwaukee, WI.  When my husband read the story he decided to call the farmer since they shared a common background in Israel. When Dubi answered the phone, my husband asked him if he spoke Hebrew, then told him he thought Dubi might like to speak some Hebrew to someone other than his wife. Dubi asked, "Do you think I am meshugeneh?" My husband said, "Well, I don't know you well enough to say. But your story is sure meshugeneh."  The story written below has all sorts of morals for modern times.

     Dubi Ayalon is a sabra (born in Israel), was a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Force, spent a short time as a police officer, and then became a high school teacher and later administrator at an Israeli school for troubled teens. He has 3 daughters with his first wife,  divorced but participated in raising those daughters. He met his current wife when she was visiting Israel. She is a daughter of two Israelis who now live in Chicago, where she grew up. Dubi and Mihal have an 8 year old son together. When his daughters were adults, Mihal wanted to come back to the US to be close to her parents who would be able to be grandparents to her son. Dubi got on the Internet and saw a farm for sale in Plain, Wisconsin. The idea of living on a farm looked attractive to Dubi. After his previous work and careers, he was looking for the peace and quiet of the countryside. Besides that the current owner of the farm had tried to place a lighted Christmas star on his silo, but apparently the typical 5 pointed star was too hard to make. The original farmer had just put two large triangles of rebar together and strung them with Christmas lights, unintentionally making a very rough but clear Star of David. Dubi regarded this as an omen. He did ask his in laws to drive up from Chicago to look at the place. But they lived in the city and didn't know much about farms. They reported that it looked OK to them, but they were not farmers and I don't know how well they looked in the house. Dubi bought the farm sight unseen, and arrived in the winter to find the farmhouse basement full of water with damage throughout the house. The first task was to get the house habitable.

     Mihal was a well respected naturopathic doctor in Israel and after arriving in Plain, she was able to find an opening at a clinic in Prairie du Sac and also the University Hospital in Madison was happy to offer her one day a week to treat cancer patients with her acupuncture. Dubi had intended to drive a truck in the US, but he had previously injured his back in a fall from a camel back in Israel, and he reinjured it falling on the ice shortly after arriving at his farm. Therefore, he knew his back would not allow him to become a truck driver. Mihal saw something written about mozzarella di buffalo and raising water buffalo to sell their milk for cheese. She told Dubi, "You have the farm, the pasture, the barn. Why don't you consider this as an occupation?" Dubi thought about it and began to do some research. He called a water buffalo farmer he had heard of in Israel, but after he told his story, that gentleman just called him a yored, the derogatory word for someone who has left Israel. "If you are in the US, you ask the US for help!" and he hung up on Dubi. Next Dubi called a water buffalo farmer in Vermont. (There are only 3 water buffalo farms in the US and not all even sell their milk.) Even though previously Dubi had thought all Americans were arrogant and loud and unlikely to be of help, this farmer offered a lot of help and even first hand observation of his whole process at his farm in Vermont. Dubi decided to proceed and purchased a few animals from California and Florida. His bull, named Armondo, was a magnificent animal of Italian stock. Now Dubi had to figure out how to care for his new small herd, how to get them through the first winter, and then how to milk them -- all gargantuan tasks. After all these animals derive from animals that live close to the equator in Asia. They could not be expected to winter well here. Dubi had never done any farming of any kind. He wasn't sure entirely how to take care of them, so to be sure they were warm and clean in the barn for much of the winter, he was applying bedding (straw) to their barn area floor 4 times a day, but he still didn't know if that was enough. He asked one of his farmer neighbors in Plain to come and look at his animals and see if they thought he was doing it right. For the first time in his life he learned from this practical farmer that it wasn't the process that was important but the result. The farmer took a look at his animals and said, "Well, they look clean. I think they're all right!"

     Dubi had to outfit his pasture fence with an electric wire along the top because a regular Wisconsin fence wouldn't hold these animals. As Dubi says, "Water buffalo do what they want to do. And my biggest nightmare is that the whole herd decides to go shopping at Costco in downtown Spring Green." He found that he had to supplement his pasture grass with grain, but the diet shouldn't be too rich. At first he didn't have the combination correct and some of his herd got sick.

     He has spent almost 3 years teaching his current milking herd HOW to be milked. When it came time to milk his heifers, he had to make major changes in the facilities. A normal cow stanchion will not hold a water buffalo; it just is not strong enough. He had to have special reinforced ones designed. He had to cement two steel rings in the cement floor near the hind feet of the water buffalo cow so he could chain her feet to them. Otherwise he was getting kicked hard frequently. These water buffalo cows did not like being milked.  They were purchased from various farms where they had been raised for butchering or just as a hobby. None of these animals had ever been milked, ever heard or felt the machinery that suctions their udders, nor had their own mothers ever known any such machinery. Dubi felt that he had to win these animals trust in order for them to give him their milk. He named every animal, and some will allow him to affectionately stroke their heads. He plays music for them in the barn, and he sings to them in Hebrew. He calls them for milking by inviting them to dinner in Hebrew. But milking is still a hard and kind of scary job to be carried out twice every day. He is nervous about it every day and even though not a religious man he prays before he goes to the barn to do the milking. He picks up his son from school rather than allow him to ride the bus home because the bus would deliver the boy home right in the middle of afternoon milking. Dubi would not be able to pay him any attention at that time. He says it is harder than any of his previous jobs, including leading men into battle.

The herd in the barn

One of the water buffalo milking cows
     He now milks 7 cows. He has another 15 yearlings, most females, that will come fresh this year. He is breaking even at 6 cows and has a goal of milking about 25 cows for 8 months a year. After that time he lets them go dry so that he can go back to Israel to visit his three daughters. And he cannot ask any neighbor farmer to do his milking as a normal Holstein owner would. The best he can hope for is that one of his neighbors will agree to come in to feed them and bed them during the winter off season.

The yearlings, separated from the adult herd
What an expression!

Armondo with the ring in his nose and the big brown eyes.
     Then there is his 2000 pound bull, son of an Italian line, named Armando. I personally met Armando. Dubi invited us into the barn and put some grain in a small trough, and held it through the gate at our end of the barn. Water buffalo are very very curious. Many, including Armando, came over to first check us out and then to nibble some of the grain in the trough. The gate has been retrofitted with 4 inch pipe bars and is bolted to one of the main pillars in the barn with large bolts and steel plates. As Armando approached, I looked into his large deep brown eyes, and I thought, "Here is an animal who knows the answer, the meaning of life." He starred and snorted a little bit. One was tempted to put one's hand through the pipes and give him a little pet, but then shortly before I did such a stupid thing, he put his horned head down and butted that pipe gate with a fair portion of his 2000 pounds behind the butts. Meanwhile Dubi calls to two of his favored heifers, Shelly and Sherri, and he affectionately knuckles one of them between her eyes, cooing in Hebrew to them. Dubi agrees that he should be afraid of Armando, and says, "Armando will kill me some day. I know it, and he knows it." And yet he often approaches Armando in the pasture carrying only a baseball bat. So far Armando has respected him and has never attacked.

Would you face him with only a baseball bat and Hebrew words?
From The Jewish Chronicle: Amy Waldman.
“A water buffalo teaches you modesty,” Dubi said. “She will not give milk until I find a way to make her, to bring her to the place where she’s willing to give me milk. There is no other way. You cannot chain them and beat them and order them.” This is something he learned first-hand, after he forcibly milked one cow, who had repeatedly kicked him when he initially tried to milk her.
“She won’t listen anymore,” he said. “Water buffalo remember.”

Ayalon has learned to rely on local experts and his neighbors for help with technical questions. But when it comes to figuring out how to get a 770-pound animal with sharp, curved horns and a strong will to stand still long enough to let a skinny man relieve her of her milk, Ayalon has turned to a different expert.

“[Nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche used to say that there are two types of behavior,” he said. “The king’s moral and the slave’s moral. The king’s moral means he will say, ‘I want this to happen.’ The slave moral will find a way to make the thing happen. I’m in the slave type of moral. I need to find a way that the king is willing to do exactly what I am asking him to do — and the water buffalo is king.

“Raising buffalo is as simple as that,” he said. “It’s holding the power without any power in your hand. End of Jewish Chronicle quote.

Three of the cows
The herd
     Cedar Grove Creamery located about a mile from the farm, buys all of Dubi's milk. They have brought in a cheese maker from a creamery in Vermont who knew how to work with the bufalo milk from a farm there. It is apparently a little tricky to make the cheese from such high butter fat milk. We recently attended a cheese and wine night at Larry's Market in Brown Deer WI, where a cheese author spoke about his book: Gordon Edgar/ Cheemonger: Living on the Wedge. We asked both the author and Larry about our local Wisconsin mozzarella di buffala. Larry remarked that the first he had bought might have been a little tough. But right now none is making it to Milwuakee, being purchased locally in Central Wisconsin, and being sent to Chicago and other area chefs. Mr. Edgar thought that perhaps the few creameries that work with buffalo milk should try to make some aged cheeses because they would last longer and might be easier to work with, and would also fill another niche here in Wisconsin.
     Is it worth it? Dubi thinks so. He has disdain for the boring local Holstein cow, which he says has no personality. He says Holsteins are just 4 sticks with a bag. And his milk sells to Cedar Grove Creamery for 5 times that of the price for cows' milk, or about $100 per hundred pounds of milk. The water buffalo milk is very high in butter fat, about 4 times or more of cows' milk. Each of Dubi's heifers gave about 15 pounds of milk a day during their first year of being milked. The fresh mozzarella cheese is prized in Italy to use on pizza. In Italy also aged cheeses are made from the milk but they usually are not imported here. Having met Dubi and eaten lunch with him and his family, listening to his very strong opinions punctuated by 4 letter English epithets, still I know of his highly educated status. It is not surprising that he combines a farmer's life out in the hinterlands of the dairy state with Nietzsche. I have heard that his Plain, Wisconsin farm is on the tour for many folks going to the sites in the area, such as House on the Rock, and Governor Dodge State Park. If you get a chance to visit this location, do it. It is fun to see the water buffalo for yourself, but it is also a treat to meet Dubi and put the story with the man. Both are remarkable and unforgettable.


  1. Hello,
    Do you have Dubi Ayalon email address??


    1. His email is Where are you from and what is your interest in Dubi's water buffalo?