It sounds almost too good to be true. Entrepreneurial vision, community action, and enlightened policy measures at the national and European level all come together to promote the sustainable utilization of a rare habitat and an endangered species.
The endangered species begins to recover and is once again bred and raised for milk and meat. The free-range grass-grazing animals, for all intents and purposes organically raised, yield meat rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and with more protein but with 50% less cholesterol and an eighth of the saturated fat of beef. Demand far outstrips supply. Agro-tourism in the region begins to gain momentum, creating new jobs, along with those of the mostly young livestock breeders, some of whom used to farm tobacco. Idyllic, don’t you think?
The animal is the water buffalo. The habitat is Lake Kerkini in the prefecture of Serres in Northern Greece (though the buffalo is raised elsewhere in Greece, including the Nestor delta). This lake began as an artificial reservoir on the site of an extensive marshland. It was later redeveloped and the 110m2 wetlands area, now protected part of the Natura 2000 network and protected by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, has become one of the most important birding sites in Greece. It is also home to over 2500 water buffalos, a noteworthy population when one considers that the entire population of the species in all of Greece in 1984 was just under 400 animals.
In the early 1950s Northern Greece alone was home to over 70,000 water buffaloes. Their numbers begin to diminish rapidly with the import of enhanced cattle stock, the contraction of the buffalo habitat as the wetlands were dredged, and the loss of almost half the agricultural population between 1961 and 1991 as farmers abandoned the countryside to move to the cities or emigrate abroad.
It’s not exactly clear when and how the turnaround started. The buffalo ranchers were undoubtedly helped when the European Commission granted the buffalo the status of a livestock animal in 1997, a decision that made breeders eligible for EU agricultural subsidies. According to one account, EU MP Mihalis Papagiannakis played a decisive role in securing this recognition. Another factor was likely the establishment of a buffalo ranchers collective that would advocate for the adoption of common production and hygienic standards and lobby for the interests of its members.
In another story, Zelios Boras, a butcher in Livadia, Serres, hung a sign outside his shop in 1999 saying “Buffalo meat for sale”, only to garner the scorn of his fellow butchers and many of the local residents, and perhaps rightly so, given the variation in hygienic standards in the processing and storage of buffalo meat at the time. Undeterred, Boras launched a buffalo kavourmas, a cumin-scented confit of cured buffalo meat (along the lines of the more widely known pork version and a distant cousin of the pastourmas). This kavourmas was later presented at the Agrotica 2004 trade fair to favorable reviews. At the same time, consumer interest in leaner, free-range, antiobiotic-free meats grew, a godsend to the buffalo ranchers, whose animals spent their lives grazing on grass in the wetlands of Serres. Bournas’ buffalo meat, and that of other producers, such as the Hasapiko, began to garner awards at gourmet food expositions, whether in the form of kavourmas or sausages or fresh meat.
Supply is still limited and, unless you happen to be in Serres, for the time being available only in selected delicatessens in Athens and Thessaloniki. Admittedly it’s more expensive than corn-fed, antibiotic-pumped feedlot beef—and given its low fat content, somewhat trickier to cook—but it’s a flavorsome and healthy addition to the larder.