When Massimo Lubisco came to New Zealand in 2004 on holiday from Puglia, Italy he was surprised at the lack of fresh mozzarella in a country with such high quality dairy. "I was shocked that people were buying mozzarella for $15 a ball when you can buy a kilo in Italy for that!" he says.
Having fallen in love with this part of the world, he came back in 2006 for a year to scope out possibilities for a permanent move. Noticing the gap still existed, he decided he would really like to fill it and went home, learned to make cheese and returned four years later.
In 2010 he and his partner Marina came to Auckland and started making cow's milk speciality cheeses: mozzarella, scamorza and ricotta, under the brand name Italian Cheeses. It was very popular when they first sold it at La Cigale market. "Many people told us they loved our ricotta and when they tried to buy similar in the supermarket, ended up coming back to us as it wasn't the same," laughs Massimo.
I have to agree. It's a true joy to consume. Lighter than air and delightfully creamy, it would be perfect in lasagne or cannelloni, I thought. But Marina says it's too good to cook so she uses it for sweets, mixed with chocolate chips and stuffed into cannoli or even just on toast with honey.
This cheese won gold in the ricotta category at the Cuisine NZ Champions of Cheese Awards this year.
And if you want a real treat, try their burrata. It looks like a mozzarella ball from the outside but inside it's a mixture of liquid cream and ribbons of mozzarella - total indulgence. It's very rich due to the cream and is used more as a spread on fresh bread than in a salad.
About a month ago, Massimo started experimenting with buffalo milk in an effort to make buffalo mozzarella.
"It's hard and it requires higher handling temperatures than cow's milk," he says, "but we are getting there".
So far, it's pretty impressive for "getting there". It has that perfectly mild, creamy mozzarella flavour but with just enough of the characteristic sour and slightly salty notes to give it a defining flavour. I was lucky enough to have some Curious Croppers tomatoes and basil leaves to intersperse with the mozzarella. I could almost have been in Tuscany eating an insalata caprese. The rind is slightly thicker than I've tasted before, but Massimo is working on that. But it's certainly not off-putting, as the texture and taste is so good.
It's very exciting to have another option for fresh Italian cheeses here and I look forward to seeing Massimo's next developments.
Where to buy
Available at markets and farmers' markets of La Cigale, Howick Village, Coatesville and Gulf Harbour; and online at italiancheeses.co.nz.By Alexia Santamaria