A bad week for buffalo mozzarella

China is the latest to ban imports, citing dioxin concerns. But how did the seventh century barbarian nomad Avars get involved in this mess?

By Andrew Leonard
Published March 31, 2008 6:14PM (EDT)

The eighth century historian Paul the Deacon tells us that during the reign of the Lombard King Agilulf (also known as "the Thuringian"), the Avars and the Bavarians fought a terrific battle, not far from what are now the northern borders of Italy.

And in these same days, while the Bavarians, to the number of thirty thousand men, attacked the [Avars], the Cagan fell upon them and all were killed. Then for the first time wild horses and buffaloes were brought into Italy, and were objects of wonder to the people of that country.

Italian buffalo are back in the news this week, as concerns over the presence of dioxin in the buffalo milk used to make premium mozzarella spread across the globe. On Sunday, China followed the lead of South Korea and Japan and banned imports of Italian mozzarella. While one can imagine that health authorities in China might feel some small sense of revenge in banning European imports while citing food safety concerns, the dioxin-mozzarella problem is real. For decades, the Camorra, an organized crime group in southern Italy, has been illegally dumping garbage and imported toxic waste in and around Naples, endangering the food supply of some 250,000 local buffalo.

But are those buffalo really the descendants of buffalo brought to southern Europe by the Avars, nomadic warriors originally from Central Asia who settled in Europe around the time of the Emperor Justinian?

An anonymous historian from the Middle Ages tells us:

"In the 6064th year since the creation of the world (556 A.D.), which is the 32nd year of the reign of Justinian the Great (559 A.D.) there came to Constantinople ambassadors of a strange people, called Avars, and the whole city ran to see the marvel, for they had never beheld such a people. They wore their hair very long, bound with fillets and braided, while their accoutrement in other respects was like that of the rest of the Huns. These people, as Evagrius says in the fifth part of Ecclesiastical History, are a tribe of wagon-dwellers living beneath the Caucasus, and pasturing there in the plains. Since they suffered ill at the hands of their neighbors, the Turks, they fled from them.

In "Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch's Trionfo della Morte," a remarkable essay published in 1974 in Speculum, the journal of the Medieval Academy of America, historian Lynn White traces a migration path in which "the buffalo reached Persia from India in the second century B.C., in the first century A.D. it arrived in Mesopotamia; it came to Armenia and the southern coast of the Black Sea by the middle of the fourth; in the fifth, to all of Anatolia and to the eastern and northern Black Sea coasts." The Avars, according to this line of reasoning, would have picked them up somewhere around the Black Sea, as they fought their way from east to west. The exact timeline and migration path may be open to question, but one way or another, the melancholy and prone-to-loll Indian water buffalo made itself comfortable in the great Roman campagna.

Not all reviews of this Indic invader were complimentary. White quotes the opinion of Bologna's Piero dei Crescenzi, delivered around 1306.

"One kind of cattle," he says, "called buffaloes, are black, big strong, and a bit unruly. They are not good for carts and plows, but when skillfully harnessed with chains of a certain sort they are used for pulling great loads overland. They love to loll in water. Their hides are not so good as those of other cattle, being very thick. Their flesh, moreover, is too conducive to melancholy, and therefore not much good or of good flavor: even though it looks fine when raw, when cooked it turns bad." This is an unattractive picture: Piero should have mentioned that those unsatisfactory hides were used by the Franks at the siege of Acre in 1271 to protect their military machinery from incendiaries, that in his own day great sacks of buffalo hide carried the ore out of the mines at Massa in Tuscany, and that the very thickness of buffalo leather made it admirable material for a cheap armor of light brown color that has given the word "buff" to English. And how could he have failed to mention that the best grade of mozzarella is made of buffalo milk?

How did How the World Works get diverted from a Chinese ban on Italian mozzarella imports to considerations of the Avar influence on seventh century Italian agriculture? A tossed-off mention in a New York Times articles that "barbarians" had brought the water buffalo to Italy sent me scurrying through the pages of Paul the Deacon and reacquainting myself with the exploits of Emperor Justinian. That something so preeminently Italian as mozzarella should be rooted in India and midwifed by Central Asian nomads is an extraordinarily satisfying addition to my eccentric encyclopedia of globalization. And a reminder, once again, that the "borders" over which so much is made in the 21st century by health officials and immigration agents and trade agreements are, from the point of view of history, fairly arbitrary and obviously flimsy.

"A cultural item undoubtedly Indic became part of Italian life," writes White. "This little fact helps us to recognize the larger fact that during the Middle Ages the great Eurasian societies showed more openness, more receptivity, than traditionally we have expected of them."

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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