Buffalo are beautiful
A nature-loving family have stepped away from the herd with their buffalo milk and cheese products.
“Buffalo are beautiful,” declares the Whangaripo Buffalo logo. And we’re convinced, too, after spending an afternoon exploring the two tranquil properties where the company’s artisanal cheese, milk, yoghurt and meat are produced – one at Dairy Flat, in north Auckland, the other in the lush Whangaripo Valley, east of Wellsford. The buffalo’s best ambassadors, though, are Annie Wills and her husband, Phil Armstrong, who run the company with Annie’s parents, Pam and Chris Wills. Their 95 water buffalo – a mixture of bulls, cows and calves – are cared for like the family’s own children, with the females lovingly referred to as “girls”.
You may have tried the boutique farm’s distinctive cheeses at the Matakana Farmers’ Market, or at one of the stores or restaurants they supply, such as Orphans Kitchen, Commonsense Organics, Good Grocer and Amisfield Winery and Bistro.
As well as a variety of bries, the family produces haloumi, feta, Fresca (a soft, creamy cheese), Grado (labneh), Marin Blue (a creamy blue named after Annie and Phil’s first son) and Saint Malo (a hard, pecorino style named for their second son). Some of the more unique cheeses – such as St Benedict the Black, a brie coated in French ash then left to grow mould – are made to order for specific customers. They also sell buffalo yoghurt and milk, and a small amount of meat; buffalo burgers with your choice of cheese are a hit at the Matakana market.
It’s been nine years since the family started in the buffalo business, inspired by the cheeses they sampled in Italy. “How hard can it be?” Annie said at the time – her catchphrase for any new challenge. It’s a lot easier when you have some farming nous (Phil grew up on a dairy farm and Annie has a degree in agriculture) and are happy to make do and mend.
Two containers have been re-purposed into a compact cheese-making facility in Dairy Flat, where the whole family lives. The operation is split between here and the milking and grazing station in the hilly, green Whangaripo Valley – about a 45-minute drive away. The herd, a mixture of Italian Riverine buffalo and Indian Nili-Ravi buffalo, are originally from Queensland. Up to 40 are milked each day – not a fast exercise – with each cow yielding three to four litres of high-quality milk.
The plan is to move everything up to Whangaripo Valley soon and build a large container house there. Meantime, the family hunker down in the basic cabin when they visit. It’s a former Whangarei station master’s office, with open-air sleeping quarters and a low-power vibe.
Both farms are chemical- and spray-free and, when they have time, Pam and Annie love to garden. There are a number of heritage fruit trees at Whangaripo, along with a prolific herb patch with multiple varieties of mint – perfect for Annie’s mint-infused buffalo ice cream.
Words by: Tracey Sunderland & Fiona Ralph.
Photography by: Vanessa Lewis.