BUFFALO, CA Melisa Schultze, left, Curtis Fjelstul and Andrew Zlot started making their one-of-a-kind gelato in 2013.
Black-and-white Holstein cattle and tan, doe-eyed Jersey cows are a common sight in the North Bay. Water buffalo? Not so much.
The curious, watchful animals with their sloped, black horns and croaking vocalizations are newcomers to western Marin and Sonoma counties, but their presence signals a delicious addition to the region's long history of dairy farms.
Craig Ramini's buffalo milk mozzarella operation in Tomales brought the Asiatic animals into the area. His then-partner Andrew Zlot set out to expand the herd and find a larger dairy. But when their partnership came to an end, Zlot found himself with a herd of buffalo and no idea what to do with the luxuriously rich milk they produced. He wasn't going to make mozzarella. A chance meeting with two Mendocino County gelato makers (Paul Vierra and Marco Moramarco of Gualala's Pazzo Marco Creamery) at a party gave him an idea. Zlot asked if they'd be willing to make a batch of gelato with his buffalo milk. They said yes, and he brought some milk up to Gualala.
"Out came the gelato, and it was just glorious," Zlot says.
After some coaxing, the gelato makers shared their recipe for the gelato base under the condition Zlot didn't sell in Gualala. The flavoring would be up to Zlot. Thus Petaluma's Double 8 Dairy gelato was born.
Zlot and his two partners (Curtis Fjelstul and Melisa Schultze) began making gelato in 2013. From the restaurant side, customers have included heavies like the French Laundry, Ramen Gaijin, A16, Quince, Sushi Ran and Oliveto. On the retail side, Double 8 is available at Paradise Market (Corte Madera), Bi-Rite (San Francisco) and Market Hall (Oakland).
"There is no other buffalo milk gelato dairy in America," says Zlot. Fjelstul (formerly production manager of Three Twins ice cream) says he's pretty sure there isn't one in Italy either.
The name Double 8 refers to the milking parlor, a U-shaped area that can house 16 buffalo (a double eight). Zlot used to deliver gelato in a portable freezer in the back of his Jetta, but now he makes his rounds in a used Dryer's ice cream truck.
At $9 a pint, the gelato ain't cheap. Dairy cows produce about three times as much milk as a water buffalo, but the milk that comes out is supremely rich and creamy. Water buffalo milk gelato is 10 percent butterfat, lower than that of traditional premium cow's milk ice cream which has cream added to it and about 14 percent butterfat. Because buffalo milk is so rich, no additional cream is needed.
Current flavors include chocolate, hazelnut, candy cap mushroom and, my favorite, fior de latte, a plain milk flavor that's anything but plain. The gelato is dense and chewy and stunningly delicious. Compared to premium brands of ice cream, its has a more satiny mouthfeel and a downright buttery quality.
The buffalos' barns, the dairy and the creamery where the ice cream is made are all within a few steps of each other. It doesn't get more farm-to-freezer than that.
"The beauty of this is the simplicity," says Zlot, a journalist turned economist turned ice cream maker. "You milk in the morning and make gelato in the afternoon."