Benito La Vecchia is a third-generation buffalo cheesemaker, Caseificio il Casolare, producing Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP in the countryside village of Alvignano, about 60 km north of Naples, in the Campania region. Benito runs the family dairy together with his father, Mimmo, his mum Concetta, Zio Pasquale, Zia Donatella, and his sister Filomena. Together they oversee 20 workers and cheese masters.
Mozzarella has achieved world fame as a main ingredient in the ubiquitous pizza. True mozzarella is made from buffalo milk—not to confuse it with its cow’s milk “sister” fiordilatte—and it should be very moist, delicate in flavor, with bite as you dive into it. The shape varies from the usual “aversana” (an oval ball of 500gr), treccia (braid of 500gr+), treccione (up to 3kg braid), bocconcini (aka small buffalo “eggs”) and others.
This is an extract from a short interview we had at the end of April.
Livio: Describe your activity as food artisan?
Benito: We are mozzarella makers in the province of Caserta. My grandfather began making buffalo mozzarella in 1969 after learning from a dairy master; his formula is older than 100 years. Our production is mostly done by hand, in almost every step of the production including the actual mozzatura, the cutting off. 100 years ago there was no machinery and we decided to continue without it. Working with milk, especially of water buffalos, requires extreme dexterity and our cheese masters have unique manual skills that are fundamental to obtain an authentic and tasteful product. We specialize in pasta filata cheeses, from buffalo and cow’s milk: mozzarella and fiordilatte, scamorza, and caciocavallo. Our production includes ricotta, some soft cheese, and a few aged cheeses. We use the milk of 15 trusted local breeders—within a radius of 10 miles from our production—each one has an average of 150 head of cattle.
L: What’s your client base like?
B: Our clientele is equally balanced between retail and restaurants. We do sell directly in our little shop right by the cheese factory and of course to many local small grocery or gastronomy stores in our area. We also serve lots of local restaurants as well as high-end pizzerias, like Pepe in Grani of Franco Pepe, in our area, or Dry on Milan’s Via Solferino, as well as Roscioli in Campo de Fiori, Roma. 60% of our production stays in Campania, 30% goes for the rest of Italy and 10% goes abroad. We are very proud of being the suppliers of Jonathan Goldsmith’s Spaccanapoli in Chicago and Sarah Grueneberg of Monteverde.
L: When did you see things changing after the pandemic of Covid-19?
B: We started to sense something at the end of February but we didn’t feel it directly until March 7th when the lockdown in Italy took place.
L: What has changed in your day-to-day activity?
B: Dairy products are considered essential commodities in Italy hence we have stayed open all the time, working and making cheese. However, we normally close our factory for 4 days in the whole year. This year we had to close 5 days around Easter and the April bank holidays. Those are days when Italians normally make day-trips out of town, picnicking in the open-air and buying all sorts of food for the occasion. As our governor implemented stricter restrictions compared to the rest of Italy and travels between neighboring villages are forbidden, people come to buy cheese way less frequently, once every ten days or so. The rigor and discipline I see in the Campani people, normally chaotic in their ways, is unseen to me.
Regardless of contingency and the fall in consumer spending, we decided to keep all our workers in place and employed—except 2 single mothers with kids to whom we gave special permits while keeping their salary intact—compensating the state shortcomings. In order to do so – while continuing to buy milk from our local breeders to keep the whole value chain alive – we modified production and started to make aged cheeses as the demand for the fresh mozzarella dropped 70% after March 7th. Unfortunately, we had several orders we could not fulfill because airplanes stopped flying.
L: How long can you stay in business in this situation?
B: I’d say we have 3 months stamina, but we are almost at the end of our possibilities. Starting Monday 27th April, the pizzerias can restart their business, delivery only, no take-away, like the rest of Italy.
L: What do you foresee in the future?
B: I imagine a slow start in business; in social life, everything will depend on good therapy or vaccination when people finally feel safer. I expect business and everyday life will return to normal in 18 months.
L: What’s your wish for the years to come?
B: Honestly, I wish to be back working as before, as we are capable of doing. I wish we’ll all be able to link our success, again, to our real capabilities and not to depend only on external factors and circumstances.
L: What did you learn out of this experience?
B: I learned to give value to small things. I was bored for some days. Something I had never experienced before, and I really hope not to experience this feeling again. Still, from a business perspective, this helped me a lot to be more creative in my business thinking and to quickly adapt and learn how to react to sudden changes. Darwin wrote that pandemics are natural within the animal kingdom when there’s an abnormal gathering of living things. This is true in our human world too and I hope the governors will learn from this for the good of our future.
L: Are you expecting help from the state?
B: Sincerely I don’t expect much as we have never had lots of help. Our success like anybody’s came without external help. Any measure to revive consumption would be helpful as Italians have less money now and, in the past, this always brought a decline in consumption and investments in favor of more savings.
L: Finally please nominate or suggest a person that you would like to see us interview.
B: Franco Pepe, Pepe in Grani.
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