India is home to most of the world's water buffalo. As a kid, I drank buffalo milk instead of cow milk, and let me tell you, it's disgusting - oily and sickly sweet.
As much as I hate the milk, though, I couldn't get enough of the stuff it was turned into: ghee, which smells like warm sugar, or cool, pillowy curd eaten after a spicy meal. I moved to the U.S. decades ago, and I've been looking for that rich buffalo taste ever since.
"Buffalo milk is really the fourth milk, right?" says Rob Kaufelt, the owner of Murray's Cheese in New York City, a popular store that now sells gourmet dairy products in several states. "Most of what we sell is cow, sheep and goat. Every now and then, somebody tries to sell camel milk, yak milk, human breast milk, or whatever it is that's hot that week. Of course, that never works. But buffalo milk, that is obviously the real thing. Nobody has been that successful in making it viable here yet."
It turns out, there is no amazing buffalo milk product made in the U.S., because there's just not enough buffalo milk to make one.
"Water buffalos are the divas of the dairy world, " says Julia Collins, who also works at Murray's Cheese. Collins knows all about these divas - she used to live on a buffalo dairy in Italy. "They don't have sweat glands, so they laze around in the mud all day. If you want to take milk from a water buffalo, she has to be under the right conditions. She has to be nuzzled. When a water buffalo sees a stranger, she might stop giving her milk. That's how sensitive they are."
Also, buffalo produce way less milk than cows. They're more work, less profit. A handful of American dairies tried and fizzled out. How could anyone make a good business out of this?
A water buffalo in Cañon City, Colorado
Steve Smith runs a buffalo dairy in Cañon City, Colorado - the largest in the country, and the only one that's doing well. He bought his buffalo 5 years ago from a Texas ranch. It was hard work, he says, but now he's milking 100 of them and selling all the milk to a big cheese manufacturer.
"They want more and more and more, " he says, "and we want to get up to milking 400."
The secret to its success is guys like Brady Shupe, an inmate of the Colorado prison system. The prison runs this dairy, which looks like any old dairy, except it's fenced in with razor wire. Inmates are paid less than regular workers, so Smith can afford to hire a whole lot of them. He needs them because buffalo are a lot of work.
"Cows are much easier, " Shupe says. "They drop their milk real easy. These you have to actually milk them out by hand with the pumps."
But how could a regular dairy make it - one that doesn't have prison connections, and isn't staffed with hard workers like Shupe?
Like me, Raffaele Mascolo grew up in a place with lots of buffalo. He is from Caivano, Naples, in Italy.