Not far off Interstate 4, past strawberry fields and cow pastures, a tiny dirt road cuts through palmetto bushes and leads to swampy fields – and water buffalo.
Water buffalo – giant beasts with thick horns, some curved, some pointed straight to the side – are hardly a common sight in Florida. But they find these vast, soggy fields a perfect home, with plenty of tall grass to eat and an abundance of mud in which to roll and stay cool.
They're here as a critical component for one of Florida's unique (and edible) souvenirs: fresh, homemade buffalo mozzarella, a traditional Italian cheese with a Florida twist.
Sure, alligator-shaped chocolates and seashells are always good gifts for loved ones who want a taste and feel of the tropics. But the state has many unique offerings not far off the beaten path.
This one is in Plant City, the strawberry capital of the South.
Antonio Casamento, a 43-year-old native of Sicily, bought his first batch of buffalo about two years ago and now has 25 here. He raises the buffalo to milk them and then use the milk to make cheese: buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, burrata, robiola, Gorgonzola – even yogurt.
But it all starts with the milk.
Buffalo are more finicky than Holstein cows, America's main milk source, and produce less milk. Casamento, with a constant eye out for their long horns, currently milks his buffalo once a day, but is working on a new parlor that will allow him to milk them twice daily.
He's attached to them, at each milking rubbing their sides and calling them by name – Nutella, Bubble (and her baby, Gum), Regina, Lulu, Barbie, Sunshine and Bella.
Casamento and his 11-year-old son, Alessio, can tell each one apart.
"We treat them like pets," Antonio says.
Their milk is sweet, with hints of vanilla. Even without any machine intervention, it is creamy and consistent. Casamento says he is lactose intolerant, but buffalo milk is just fine for him.
Because the buffalo don't produce much milk, it can be a pricey commodity. Casamento finds that he gets a better return by using the milk for cheese, which he makes at his home in South Tampa.
The building behind his home is hot, and smells like delicious, sour cheese. The enzymes are working, and on this particular day, he has thick slabs of curd on a stainless steel table.
Casamento's cousin chops the spongy mass, puts it in a bowl and adds very hot water. He quickly moves his hands around the mixture to make a ball of cheese, then just as swiftly pulls it apart. It turns into a glossy white, stretchy cheese – like the mozzarella you see in the supermarket.
But it tastes different, kept fresh in its own brine. The finished ricotta is especially rich and creamy, the yogurt tangy and decadent.
If you're looking for a hint of sweetness, Casamento suggests drizzling honey over the ricotta and adding fruit to the yogurt.
It doesn't taste like cheeses from stores, and part of the reason is Casamento's attention to freshness. He makes most of the cheese only a day before he sells it at farmers markets, and doesn't work with distributors because he wants to personally control freshness and shelf life.
At the first Hyde Park Fresh Market of the season, Casamento stood behind his booth with his wife and son. A photo of their buffalo hung overhead as they offered a $3 tasting of three cheeses.
Their products are so unique, he is finding people want to take them home to friends and family as souvenirs. Though he recommends eating his cheeses within a few days for maximum freshness, they will keep for several weeks if refrigerated.
Visitors can buy Casamento's cheeses at:
- Saturday Morning Market, Saturdays 9 a.m. - 2 p.m., 230 First St. SE, St. Petersburg
- Hyde Park Fresh Market, the first Sunday of the month, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., 1602 W. Snow Ave., Tampa
Casamento's cheeses are unique souvenirs. But Florida has more. Here are a few ideas:
- Sponges are synonymous with Tarpon Springs, and visitors can find all kinds of weirdly-shaped ones in the many shops along Dodecanese Boulevard. Perhaps the most unique is the pot-shaped sponge. You can actually grow air plants in them.
- While you're in Tarpon Springs, check out the homemade soaps, beautiful and with unique scents, at Getaguru Handmade Soap Company. The company makes soaps in small batches and uses olive oil, coconut oil and palm oil, among others. 777 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs
- A visit to Florida wouldn't be complete without some pirate lore. Pick up an outfit at Pirate Fashions N Fotos in St. Augustine – or just gawk at all the odd offerings at this historic building. Don't want to actually take home the feathered hat? You can pose for a photo on their decked-out set and take home the memory. 26 Cuna St., St. Augustine
- In Tallahassee, a visit to Railroad Square Art Park is a must. The industrial space hosts more than 50 studios, galleries and small shops and puts on a First Friday Gallery Hop. At these shops, you can buy a piece of art and meet the artist. 567 Industrial Dr., Tallahassee
- Miami has dozens of fun shops along Lincoln Road on Miami Beach, but for a real taste of the tropics, try El Palacio De Los Jugos (The Palace of Juices). This produce market at 5721 West Flagler St. offers beautiful tropical fruits that you might not get at home. (Just check with your airline to be sure you can take it with you; fruit sometimes is not allowed on planes.) They also have hot-food stations, so grab a Cuban sandwich and soak in the atmosphere. This is authentic Miami.