Last week Grub Street, New York magazine’s food vertical, attacked burrata with a provocative article titled “A Big Fat Blob of Boring”. The internet fissured. Think Moses parting the Red Sea – if the Red Sea was jersey cream. Just like that biblical story, it turns out burrata, a traditional cheese from Puglia in southern Italy, is sacred to some. For others, less so.
When I shared the story on Instagram, Melbourne’s king of cheese, Anthony Femia of Maker & Monger, replied, “They can kiss my arse” (although the word “arse” was actually a peach emoji). I called him for more context.
“Burrata celebrates the purity and remarkable flavour of fresh cream when done right,” he said. “It’s a parcel of the most delicious, velvety, rich cream with chopped up mozzarella, tied up together in stretched curd cheese, and it celebrates everything we love about spring and summer when the cows are out there grazing fresh grass.”
Who wouldn’t love burrata when you put it like that? The problem, from where I’m ordering, is that it’s rarely like that. Australian kitchens too often settle for poor-quality product made with local winter milk (a no-no in Italy, and besides, the argument that “local equals better” simply isn’t always true). It all comes down to the fat content of the cream. You can tell an inferior burrata by how watery it is: the less fat, the more liquid. A good burrata won’t burst and flow, it oozes slowly, like molten lava.
You won’t hear about this on Tiktok, the social media platform that sets so many food trends, whether you use it or not. They go hard and fast on there, and before you know it, the butter board is out and the chopped sandwich is in.
“There’s this Tiktok phenomenon of wanting to see burrata explode everywhere. There’s that thrill of five seconds of seeing it open its guts on top of a pizza, but then there’s 15 minutes of chewing a soggy pizza,” Femia says. “And who gets the blame? The burrata.”
As Femia points out, too many small cafes that are struggling to survive understandably turn to trends as a quick fix. In some cases, their menus are defined by their social media consultant, rather than those in the kitchen. It’s time to switch the onus onto the customer to swap likes for the demand for quality.
“When you walk away from a restaurant, you want to remember the experience, not the visual aspect,” says Anthony. “If you’re only after that visual titillation of burrata, we’re no better than the Hooters restaurants of the ’80s.”
When burrata is “done right”, as Femia puts it, I adore it. But I wholeheartedly agree with Grub Street writer Tammie Teclemariam, who pointed out that it isn’t always burrata itself that’s the issue here, it’s the predictability. To me, burrata is at best a way for restaurants to capitalise on customers’ predictability. At worst, it’s lazy. You see it all the time: burrata paired with unexciting ingredients like pretty green dots of basil oil (because the herbs are also out of season). Just as problematic is the idea of caprese being a “year-round” salad – in reality what you’ll get in winter is watery cheese and tomatoes that look like jewels but have all the texture and flavour of a washed-up sea sponge.
I understand the financial decision to jump on what’s trending, but burrata is too often served at the expense of quality and creativity. It speaks to a venue’s desire to stand out short-term, instead of standing for something long-term.
I had a friendly battle with Gerald Diffey of his eponymous Carlton North bar, who accused me of “burrata bashing”. He discredited my argument that I can buy burrata and slice up heirloom tomatoes at home, citing the “I’m-pretty-handy-in-the-kitchen-I-might-as-well-stay-home” squabble. The thing is, you don’t need to be handy to make that dish, and neither does a chef. I don’t go to restaurants to eat what I can make at home (see poached eggs and almost everything else on toast). If I buy a sandwich, it’s because I’m on a deadline or don’t want to purchase all the ingredients.
There are restaurants whose burrata dishes would make an Italian’s head spin, like Tonka’s version served with charred roti and fresh coriander relish. Though it might offend a purist, in reality, it follows the template of burrata plus something herby or zingy plus something carby and toasty. Jacqui Challinor has a recipe for burrata with fennel jam at Nomad, which at least shows more technique than, say, rolling it onto some rocket. It’s worth noting she also shares it widely online, because, once again, this is something you can make at home. I’d rather order something else.
Here are the ways I’ve had and hated burrata: killing raw kingfish, ill-treated by truffle oil, molesting margherita, overpowered by prosciutto, on toast with eggs. There’s even an Indian restaurant that used to do a burrata palak special: a big sphere of the stuff on creamy, garlicky baby spinach. Soft-on-soft-on-soft. It was such a blatant piggy-backing off a trend that I kind of rate it, because the joke is on whoever orders it.
Burrata is typically a spring and summer dish, because that’s when the milk it’s made from is best. But if the cheese must make an appearance in autumn and winter, Femia suggests serving it as a side with roasted vegetables, like fennel or beets. When it becomes warmer, the verdancy of spring – sweet peas, broad beans, mint – take quality burrata from a blob to something beautiful.
“There are people who respect burrata and serve it correctly and hero it. They’re using ingredients from local farms, like Gippsland Jersey or Long Paddock cream. You can taste the remarkable sweetness and it gets your palate going for the meal to come,” Femia says.
He recommends Floridia Cheese, Paesanella Cheese and Vannella Cheese as Aussie suppliers who bring honour to burrata. But at Maker & Monger, he flies in the unfrozen original from Puglia every three weeks, because it’s unbeatable. It has a higher fat content than what’s available within Australia. Restaurants don’t tend to buy it because it has a two-week shelf life, though a few big names are experimenting with it for when spring hits. Watch this space.
“It costs us over $30 a kilogram in logistics to get this burrata airfreighted so our customers can enjoy it. It’s phenomenal, we eat it like an apple,” Femia says.
Sofia Levin is a freelance Melbourne food journalist. Read more of her writing at Seasoned Traveller.