Water buffalo gelato
July/August 2015 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Joyce Mansfield
Photos by Matt Salvo
What's the scoop?
Nick's Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Tomales Bay offers pecan torte and other desserts topped with water buffalo gelato from nearby Double 8 Dairy.
"Super yummy." That's how Kirby Franklin described the locally made gelato that topped her dessert at Nick's Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar. The gelato gets attention—and favorable responses—not only for its flavor, but for its origins: It's handcrafted from water buffalo milk.
"Everybody loves it," said Austin Perkins, executive chef at the Tomales Bay destination, describing the gelato's depth of flavor. "We've had a few people ask if they can go see the animals themselves. Telling the story is interesting; nobody has seen a water buffalo herd and they are such beautiful animals."
These bovine beauties live just 12 miles inland, at Double 8 Dairy in West Petaluma. At a glance, water buffalo look like black cows, but there are subtle differences, such as their distinctly shaped horns and more robust build. The adult buffalo meander across a field, while the youngsters are more curious, asking for attention. They're docile creatures, acting as if they'd lived on this ranch forever. But in fact, they are relative newcomers to the area.
Double 8 Dairy owner Andrew Zlot, left, with herd manager Melisa Schulze, employee Sam Fishman and partner Curtis Fjelstul, raise water buffalo in Sonoma County and handcraft buffalo milk gelato sold in stores and served in restaurants throughout the Bay Area.
The story actually begins with dairy owner Andrew Zlot, who in 2012 left an international career in hedge fund management to don rubber boots and coveralls. He'd grown up in Marin County and after years of working and living abroad, was ready to come back to start his own business.
He narrowed down viable business options and settled on farmstead cheese as an up-and-coming opportunity.
"I looked at what kind of cheese I would want to make," Zlot said, "something that nobody else is making, but everybody loves to buy already." He settled on buffalo mozzarella, cheese made from domestic Italian water buffalo, as it was gaining attention in chef and foodie circles.
Water buffalo milk is 10 percent butterfat compared to a Holstein cow's 2.5 to 3.5 percent, Zlot said, and higher butterfat makes for creamy products. Producing just 11/2 gallons per day, water buffalo give significantly less milk than traditional dairy cows, where some breeds yield as much as 9 gallons of milk per day.
"That's four times the fat," he explained, "but 25 percent the yield."
Zlot started small, acquiring 12 Italian water buffaloes from a breeder in Texas. Female adults of this type of buffalo weigh about 1,300 to 1,400 pounds, while bulls can tip the scales at closer to a ton, he explained.
He also brought in partner Curtis Fjelstul, who had worked in ice cream production and on a dairy for 30 years.
"You can't invent a better background," Zlot said. "He and I started working the dairy, training these animals to be milked. That was quite a feat."
Due to the first barn's limited space, it took a long time to milk—three hours twice a day for just 12 animals.
"Mind you, we had still not made a successful ball of buffalo mozzarella six months in," Zlot added.
Water buffalo may look like regular cattle from afar, but a closer look shows distinctly shaped horns and a more robust build.
New digs, new direction
With his master's degree in economics and asset-management background, Zlot crunched the numbers and realized expansion was key to business success.
In fall 2012, he signed a lease on a former 180-acre dairy in neighboring Sonoma County. The barn's herringbone configuration allows for two sets of eight cows to be milked simultaneously—and the name Double 8 Dairy was born as the operation relocated to its new property.
Additional animals were purchased, and Zlot and Fjelstul started a breeding program and raising calves to increase their herd size. They teamed with a local cheesemaker to produce semi-hard asiago-style artisan cheese rather than mozzarella—until a chance meeting with two Mendocino County gelato makers in summer 2013.
"I scooped their gelato and holy smokes! Gorgeous! And they're making it from Jersey (cow) milk," Zlot said. "I asked them if they would be interested in trying their recipe with our milk and they said, 'Sure, why not?' It turned out beautifully."
Within a few months, Zlot and Fjelstul began crafting farmstead buffalo gelato as the dairy's main product. Unlike ice cream, Zlot explained, gelato doesn't use eggs and contains less fat and air. (See "What's your frozen pleasure?" below.) It is pasteurized at 155 degrees for 30 minutes, and the liquid base is then placed in a blast freezer to create the finished frozen treat.
"What's unique about our product is that we don't add cream," Zlot said, comparing it to other gelatos and referencing the milk's higher butterfat. He said he knows of no other dairy, anywhere, making gelato from water buffalo milk.
Austin Perkins, executive chef of Nick's Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar, creates seasonal dishes that showcase locally grown food, such as this pecan torte topped with Fior di Latte water buffalo gelato from Double 8 Dairy.
Today—milking 50 cows a day from a herd of 80 and less than two years after mixing that first batch of buffalo gelato—Double 8 produces seven flavors of pre-packaged pints, available at about 15 markets throughout the Bay Area. In addition to hazelnut, fig, coffee, raspberry and chocolate, they offer Candy Cap, made with locally foraged mushrooms, and Fior di Latte ("Flower of Milk"), a naturally sweet flavor that Zlot describes as "vanilla without the vanilla."
The unfrozen base is used in soft-serve machines at several regional ice cream parlors, including Bi-Rite Creamery and Gott's Roadside in San Francisco. The dairy also blends 20 to 30 flavors for some 20 regional restaurants and often makes custom gelato flavors for local chefs.
"This gelato is so smooth and so creamy and with all the different flavors; I just never tasted anything like it," said Dena Grunt, president of Nick's Cove Restaurant and Oyster Bar. "I love that it is literally right down the road and Andrew's coming back and getting his hands dirty, having that lifestyle that he lived and then just deciding to finish it in Wranglers and boots on a dairy with water buffalo."
"Nobody with a background in dairy would be crazy enough to try something like this," Zlot laughed as he talked of continuing to expand the herd and add more flavors in more places—and next year begin to produce buffalo mozzarella.
What's your (frozen) pleasure?
They're all sweet and cool—and especially tempting in summertime. But how do these chilly confections compare? Andrew Zlot, owner of Double 8 Dairy, gives us the inside scoop:
Frozen yogurt: Blends yogurt with a liquid base of milk, water and sweetener.
Soft serve: Ice cream made in and served from a freezer that continuously churns and adds air, resulting in a soft, smooth product.
Gelato: The name is Italian for "frozen," and uses milk and little cream—no cream when made with water buffalo milk—which reduces fat and intensifies flavor. Denser than ice cream because it's churned slowly, which adds very little air.
Ice cream: Uses equal parts milk and cream, and typically eggs. Faster churning adds air, which makes it less dense and soft to scoop when served at very cold temperatures.
Sorbet: Frozen fruit, with no milk, cream or eggs added. The Italian version, sorbetto, generally has a more intense fruit flavor and an almost chewy texture.