Sitting right across Amoy Street Food Centre is The Mast'’s cheese production laboratory. A clear glass partition fronts its facade, facing an archetypal grey granite-tiled pathway outlining the office building it’s housed in. Mostly swarmed with white-collar workers during the weekdays, the unassuming space, which may pass off as a severely narrow and underequipped kitchen, doesn’t warrant much attention. An olive green machine, dubbed the Compact, rests by its wall with stainless steel pipes and an attached sink flanking it, leaving barely enough moving space for a person.
Yet if one were to walk past it at the right time, one might just witness the making of what’s arguably Italy’s most mythical delicacy.
At least once a day, a cheesemaker will step in with a bowl of buffalo milk curds, open the Compact’s top lid, pour the curd in, press a button and set it whirring. The pinnacle of the process comes five minutes after that: the oddly satisfying sight of fist-sized elastic spheroids, glistening in its porcelain whiteness, plopping out of the machine’s spinning metal mould into the hands of the cheesemaker. They’re fresh balls of buffalo milk mozzarella.
A cheesemaker collects the balls of buffalo milk mozzarella churned by the lab’s sole machine.
Buffalo milk mozzarella is the golden acme of dairy. Compared to cow milk, buffalo milk has about twice the fat, decadently condensing twice as much dairy. It’s gloriously creamier and flavourful. Its rich, dense texture is so unrealistically soft that it hovers on the elusive axis between solid and liquid. There’s hardly any surprise that attempts at describing it often skew towards poetic realms. Notably, famed cheesemonger Steven Jenkins once rhapsodically wrote of it, “When cut, it will weep its own whey with a sweet, beckoning, lactic aroma.”
In southern Italy, its native birthplace, cheese shops twist and stretch curds into its variety of mozzarella forms mere hours after the curd matured, serving them in peak freshness. Beyond the transient time frame, they inevitably sour. Many of the bold and ambitious have tried yet failed to spread the gospel of buffalo milk mozzarella outside the borders of Italy — unable to sustain its brief hours-long lifespan — but not The Mast'.
What sets The Mast' apart from other mozzarella makers is its ability to halt time. Employing a full vertical integration of mozzarella making, from buffalo to table, it runs its own water buffalo farm in the hilly expanse of Valle dei Templi in Paestum. It breeds more than a hundred of these curly-horned mammals, coaxing them to give 10 to 12 litres of milk per day and coagulating them into curds. Once the curds have matured, this is where a science-backed manoeuvre on time is applied: quick-freezing.
It’s a non-artificial preservation technique so rapid that the ice crystals formed are too small to rupture the curds’ cells and their natural juices. Atoms of the curds are thus suspended in place, stopping them from souring with almost 18 months of shelf life. These frozen buffalo milk curds are then flown to other parts of the world, including its first non-Italy outpost in Singapore.
The sole Compact machine is the beating heart of the cheese lab. When the frozen curds arrive in the cheese lab, it presses the play button on their lifespan, unpausing what was halted back in Italy.
Inside the Compact’s rumbling belly is where the magic of mozzarella making continues. The curds, having been defrosted in warm water, are transformed through simultaneous steaming and stretching, done by a twirling metal arm at its core. It obliterates almost all the manual heavy-lifting: a cheesemaker need only check through the machine’s peek hole to observe if the colour, texture and stretch look right. And in a matter of minutes, it sculpts out six kilograms of taut mozzarella balls, which are straight away sent to the kitchen to be hand-shaped into an armada of ambrosial treats.
The Tris di Bufala, an introductory dish made of three different iterations of buffalo milk mozzarella.
The most indulgent way one can lavish on its lactic goodness is through the Tris di Bufala, a starter dish composed of three of its different renditions: two burratas — one is the classic mozzarella ball cradling a creamy centre, the other is spun with the added ingredient of smoked salmon — and an original mozzarella ball, still warmly congealing after exiting the Compact. Once sliced, the burratas spill their cream centre atop a bed of salad and Tuscan flatbreads, the complementing offsetters to their sublime velvet-like intensity.
Another is through The Mast'’s pinse, a traditional Roman take on pizza. Along with thinly cut zucchinis and salmon, shredded strips of mozzarella bathed in cream — or what’s known as stracciatella (pronounced strahtch-ah-tella) — liberally pepper the thick dough. It’s leaps of distinction over pizzas stuffed with vastly inferior vacuum-packed ersatz.
“Mozzarella, burrata, stracciatella, whatever the curd becomes, the main point is that is should be consumed fresh,” points Mirko Petrosino, one of the co-founders of The Mast'. Everything listed on The Mast'’s mozzarella-centric menu is intended for immediate consumption so that diners experience buffalo milk mozzarella as they would in Italy: the same day it’s stretched.
Mirko Petrosino, one of the three Italian co-founders of The Mast.
“We wanted to create the sensation, the atmosphere for the people here to taste a small part of Italy,” says Petrosino. It’s best eaten at the restaurant, he suggests. The Mast'’s rustic osteria is a purist temple of the made-in-Italy way of life. The cheesemaker’s exacting steadfastness translates beyond transporting slices of Italy’s cultural identity through orbs of cheese. Inside, everything — from cutlery to furniture — is flown in and originates from the Mediterranean country.
“People come here because they want something specific,” asserts Petrosino, nodding towards the churning cheese lab behind him. “This is where you can find true Italian food, done true Italian style.”
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