CAPACCIO, Italy

AFP

A queue forms for rub-downs as jazz piano tinkles out of the speakers: some of the best buffalo mozzarella in the world starts with in-stable VIP treatment.

Ducky, Sweety and Lady lumber towards the sound system, attracted to the smooth Keith Jarrett licks at the exclusive Tenuta Vannulo dairy in southern Italy.

“The music helps them produce more milk because the animal feels more relaxed,” said 25-year-old Valentina Michelucci, a tousle-haired stable hand, who said she wants to try out some disco hits too. “They’re very curious when they hear it.”

The half-tonne black water buffaloes spend their days lounging on rubber mattresses, munching on organic hay or looking forward to vaporised showers that form a fine cooling mist from overhead pipes. When they feel the urge, they saunter into a special pen for automatic milking by a unique machine that knows the exact shape of each udder thanks to a code emitted by the electronic collars the buffaloes wear.

Or they can head to large round brushes that twist into action when the animals come into contact with them, providing a soothing back and shoulders massage.

“Animals have to be treated well to produce stress-free milk,” Antonio Palmieri, owner of the 200-hectare (500-acre) farm, told AFP in an interview.

The dapper Palmieri, wearing a panama hat, a collarless linen shirt and loafers, is seen as a pioneer for environmentally sustainable buffalo dairies. “They can’t speak for themselves so it’s up to us to understand how they want to be cared for,” he said, sitting in a manicured garden next to his three stables, which house 500 buffaloes. The farm sells around 300 kilogrammes (800 pounds) of mozzarella per day for 13 euros a kilo - nearly $8 a pound. There’s just one catch: If you want it, you have to drive to the farm, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Salerno, to buy it, as Palmieri does not bother with distribution - or marketing, for that matter.

Business is brisk anyway, thanks to the dairy’s word-of-mouth fame and international reputation among jet-setting buffalo milk aficionados.