Writer’s Note: Two years ago I wrote a joyful story about Ramini Mozzarella, a Northern California farm founded on love and dreams. It was the story of Craig Ramini, his wife Audrey Hitchcock—and their endearing family of water buffalo, who were helping their human guardians produce some of the first authentic mozzarella di bufala in the U.S.
Today, the story and labor of love continues, but without its patriarch. In 2014, Craig was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma—and less than a year later, the cancer took his life. These days, Audrey is a “single mom” of a growing family of water buffalo—and the valiant matriarch of the farm and artisan cheesemaking venture.
It hasn’t been easy. But the seasons of farm life and its edible legacies go on. As Audrey says, “Ramini Mozzarella is our baby: Craig and I raised it together and our family will live on.” Below is the story of then and now—and a dream that endures forever.
THEN: May, 2014
At Ramini Mozzarella in Northern California’s pastoral Marin County, every day is Mother’s Day.
“This is a very female-oriented society here on the farm,” Craig Ramini tells me. “Everything comes down to the mothers and their babies.”
Any mom will tell you that the secret ingredient in her signature dish is love—and water buffalo moms are no exception.
These majestic females are the proud producers of the decadently rich, creamy milk that’s the foundation for one of the world’s most legendary cheeses: authentic mozzarella di bufala.
“Our cheese literally depends on love,” Craig says. “Water buffalo aren’t like modern dairy cows—they’re very independent, vigilant creatures who won’t give their milk to just anyone. These animals are descended from centuries of wild water buffalo, who had to be constantly on the lookout for predators and ready to take off at a moment’s notice.”
And like moms everywhere, water buffalo are always thinking first of their babies.
If the moms are feeling nervous, you can bet they’re not going to let go of a drop of milk for a human.
In order for water buffalo moms to let their precious milk flow freely, they need to be relaxed and at ease so their pituitary glands can produce oxytocin, the hormone that creates feelings of bonding, love and trust.
“When the love is flowing, so is the milk” is the way Craig likes to put it.
With this in mind, Craig and his wife, Audrey Hitchcock, decided to create a water buffalo paradise that would put the moms’ natural intelligence to work in everyone’s favor.
“Our milking barn and creamery are converted from an old cow dairy,” Audrey says. “When I redesigned the milking barn, my goal was to create a mellow, churchlike atmosphere where the moms and babies would feel completely happy, peaceful and comfortable.”
Craig, who once worked in software development, put his creativity to work in designing milking stalls that complement a water buffalo’s psychology. In fact, his nose-to-tail stalls have been so successful, they’ve helped earn Craig the reputation among farmers and ranchers as the “Dr. Phil of Water Buffalo.”
Craig says that the best way to treat a water buffalo is just like you would your best friend. When they feel safe, secure and loved, they cooperate.
“During milking time, everything is nice and peaceful,” Craig tells me. “No tractors, no noisy farm work —we’ve even worked it out so that the Black Angus cattle next door keep quiet.”
As you might expect, the water buffalo moms give a lot more milk when their calves are nearby. Every morning, Craig brings the buffalo babies down from the pasture and into the milking barn.
“While the mothers are being milked, the babies enjoy a breakfast of their favorite hay, then we brush them,” Audrey says.
“Just as they do in the pasture, the mothers are continually communicating with their babies. A gentle lick is like a hug—and the moms have a special grunt that I’m absolutely sure means ‘I love you!’ There’s also a bellow, which I think every mom (human and water buffalo) is familiar with!
And I very much agree with Craig about this being a female-oriented society. Because they’re herd animals, the buffalo moms and aunties all look after the calves out in the pasture. If one baby is in trouble, all the adult females work together to keep that baby safe.”
This season, the five mothers of newborn calves are all first-time moms. But since they’ve been in the milking barn as calves when their own mothers were being milked, they’ve seen how it’s done.
In a way, this is the water buffalo equivalent of passing down special family recipes and techniques to the next generation. And much the same way as the kitchen is the heart of a home, the milking barn is the heart of Ramini Mozzarella.
“The moms and calves know the building and it’s a happy place where they feel safe and secure,” Craig observes. “They associate it with love, family, friendship—and lots of good things to eat.”
Later, when Craig sets a plate of his freshly made mozzarella on a weathered wooden picnic table beside the pasture, the description “good things to eat” seems like an understatement.
The soft, juicy ball of mozzarella di bufala still bears the marks of Craig’s hands, showing how recently the cheese was pulled and shaped. It’s served very simply, with just a sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper and a drizzle of buttery golden olive oil.
When we cut into the mozzarella, a creamy juice flows across the plate. Craig says that this is the hallmark of impeccably fresh mozzarella, usually available only in Italy.
I ask Craig what it’s called. “I’m sure there’s a proper name for it,” he tells me. “But I like to call it the ‘milky whey’ because it makes the cheese truly celestial!”
One taste of the mozzarella confirms this. It reflects the essence of the animals and the land itself, with a fresh, grassy flavor highlighting the creamy richness.
In the sunlit pasture, the water buffalo moms and babies are playing and conversing in their own private language.
We enjoy the rest of the cheese as we watch them—and taste the love in every bite.
NOW: MAY 2016
When Audrey Hitchcock talks about raising a family, she’ll gesture around the farm and tell you, “When people would ask us if we had kids, Craig and I used to tell them, “Yes: we have 41 water buffalo—and we love them just like they were our own children.”
These days, Audrey spends days (and many nights) doing what most moms do: multitasking. You’ll likely find her in the milking barn. Or in the pasture caring for ‘the girls.’ Or in the creamery making farmstead cheese. Or hosting a farm tour. Or engrossed in some creative combination of all of the aforementioned.
But like any truly great mom: Audrey can do it all—and still cheerfully carry on a conversation.
“This was all Craig’s dream initially, but I fell in love with it right away,” she says. “I loved the idea of life revolving around food, family and nature. I loved the animals and carrying on a long tradition of making cheese—and spending my days by my husband’s side as we tackled every hurdle in pursuit of turning that dream into reality.”
When you watch Audrey continue to transform the ingredients of a very challenging life into the nourishing fulfillment of a dream, you begin to realize that this is what love and families are all about.
“When Craig was going through his cancer treatments, I strapped on my boots and rubber pants and ran the dairy and creamery alone,” she says. “Even in the hospital, he was 100% there for me. He’d be on speakerphone talking me through all the everyday challenges that were so new to me.”
After six months of treatment, Craig was in complete remission—and it looked like the dream was right back on track. But a month later, the cancer hit again, with scans and tests showing it had spread to his back and spine. Audrey temporarily shut down the dairy so she could be at Craig’s side through the rest of his journey.
And then, she was continuing the dream on her own. And more than ever, the idea of sharing love has become central to Audrey’s mission.
“Our goal was originally to make wonderful, authentic cheese—and we’re back to selling our mozzarella to local restaurants, plus direct to the public, if they can make the trip to the creamery.
“But as I’ve developed my own deep relationships and special techniques with these very loving (and sometimes intimidating) animals, I’m realizing how much I’d like to teach both children and adults about the water buffalo and our husbandry practices.
“Water buffalo are sensitive animals who respond to human touch and affection with equal affection,” Audrey says. “In exchange for giving them love, they release oxytocin and give up their milk.”
“We train our animals to come in and give milk using the reward system, so each animal has actually made the decision that they want to be milked. In the same way, our babies are hand raised and socialized to love human contact and interaction.
These things have inspired me to teach people of all ages about how farm animals actually love to provide for us and interact with us—and how extraordinary that relationship can be if we nurture it.”
It’s easy to see what Audrey means: the water buffalo moms and calves adore her. And the 2000-lb. stud bull, Van Morrison, does his best to follow her around like a dog, begging to be petted and cuddled and scratched. And it’s testimony to Audrey’s loving expertise as a water buffalo mom that her “kids” are also adorably friendly with the visitors who come to tour the farm.
“Everything that happens here—from the way the animals interact with us to the richness of the cheese itself—is a natural evolution of love,” Audrey says. “When Craig and I started, we had five water buffalo, a shoestring budget, a big dream and a lot of love. Essentially, it all comes down to love.”
Meet Audrey & The Herd:
Please lend your support to Ramini Mozzarella by coming for a tour and meeting the legendary Ramini Mozzarella girls. For a reservation, please email Audrey at Craig@raminimozzarella.com
More Contact Info:
ADDRESS: 175 Gericke Rd, Tomales CA, 94971
Photos courtesy of Audrey Hitchcock.
For a virtual meeting with the lovable, loving calves, please check out the video below!