The first sign of summer’s field-ripened tomatoes calls for fresh mozzarella, and there’s no finer specimen than the original buffalo mozzarella of Italy, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.  From the milk of water buffalo (not to be confused with American bison) comes this fresh, spongey cheese with a milky, slightly sour flavor that distinguishes from the readily-available cows’ milk mozzarellas. It is also a more tender cheese than American variations, the curds breaking down until it becomes a puddle of mush. (At which point it’s definitely past its prime — fresh bufala mozzarella should be eaten quickly after purchase.) It is produced in the Campania region, around Naples, and DOC-protected.

There are various legends to explain how water buffalo found their way to Italy, but history is clear that they have produced fresh cheese from said buffalo since at least the 12th century. Mozzarella is often overlooked by serious cheese lovers, but few cheeses are as perfectly refreshing on a hot summer’s day. And the mild flavor makes pairing a breeze, as it would be hard to find a wine or beer that wouldn’t work.  Of course you can eat it as is, or sliced and layered with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and drizzled with olive oil. Tonight we had an impromptu picnic at the playground, where a salami, Mediterranean salad and crackers rounded out the meal.

Read more about Italy’s most popular cheese in this travelogue from LA Times writer Susan Spano, who describes pulling her car to the side of the road to tear into a bag: “With the cheese slithering in my hands, I took a bite, breaking through the thin, shiny rind into dissolving layers of musky-tasting paradise, juice streaming down my chin.”

P.S. The crackers? One of my favorite finds at the recent National Harbor Food & Wine Festival in DC. Locally made right here in Maryland, Little Ragghi’s crisp flatbread are seasoned with olive oil and parmesan cheese for a perfectly satisfying crunch. Their tagline is “quite possibly the world’s most addicting crackers,” and I have to say, they may be right!

(You can find both Little Ragghi’s crackers and the pictured mozzarella di bufala at Cheesetique in Va.)