A creamy, dreamy Italian cow’s milk cheese made in Wiltshire
If the prawn cocktail was the defining starter of the seventies and baked goat’s cheese the starter of the noughties, then there’s no doubt what the starter of the twenty-tens has been: burrata. It has come scattered with heirloom tomatoes; draped with honeyed peaches; drizzled with lashings of extra virgin olive oil. And most of the time it has come from Italy, carefully cushioned and hurried over so as not to lose too much shelf-life—for burrata, even more so than mozzarella, deteriorates rapidly upon leaving the dairy.
Getting his cheese to Borough Market as fresh as can be is less of a logistical challenge for Claudio Sarfati than it is for most other specialists. Rather than being based hundreds of miles away in Italy, he and his band of merry cheesemakers at De Luca London Mozzarella and Co make their burrata in a small village in Wiltshire. Italian by birth—indeed, his shepherd grandfather began making mozzarella and burrata more than 60 years ago in Latina, outside Rome—Claudio came over to England after becoming increasingly frustrated with the quality of milk in his home country.
This may seem surprising. Popular imagination has it that everything food and drink-related is better in Italy, including animal rearing. Not so, explains Claudio sadly. “Farming is dying off. Finding organic milk in Italy these days is really hard. A lot of it is industrially farmed or imported from Germany or Hungary.” Claudio is vegetarian and finds that many British farmers “have a more considerate approach towards animals and animal welfare. It is important from my point of view that the whole chain of production respects nature, and what we are producing is as natural as possible too.”
Rich, biodiverse pasture
His farmer is Helen Browning. “Her farm is organic, it is local, the cows are treated well and are milked only once a day. The rest of the milk goes to their calves,” Claudio tells me. By way of contrast, intensive farmers feed their calves via bottle formula, their cows on grain, and milk them up to four times a day. Helen’s cows, meanwhile, range and graze over 50 acres of rich, biodiverse pasture. “Every day the milk differs according to where the cows have been grazing.”
This can be challenge, he continues, as their recipe must adapt accordingly—but that’s where 60 years’ worth of inherited knowledge and experience comes in. “Our philosophy is based on a combination of science and artisanal recipes, integrating the traditional values of Italian cheesemaking with organic British cow’s milk. An Italian shoemaker can make shoes in England. The only difference is the material might differ.” Claudio can’t vouch for British leather, but he can testify to the quality of the milk he uses here, which “has a much higher butterfat content, being organic and free range.”
Fresh milk, collected at sunrise, is flash pasteurised for seconds—“just enough to allow the original taste and sense of freshness to remain intact,” says Claudio. Then natural probiotics and rennet are added so the milk curdles, and the curd is kneaded by hand to achieve the correct consistency. “The master cheesemakers stir the curd, cut it into snowflakes in large wooden tubs, slowly adding hot water to make a smooth, shiny paste.”
Meticulous about provenance
So far, so mozzarella. At this point the cheesemaking path diverges. Where with mozzarella the cheesemaker would start shaping the traditional balls by hand, for burrata he turns this mozzarella paste into a series of small, very thin round sheets which form the burrata ‘shell’ or case. “The shell is stuffed with very fine mozzarella laces and double cream. We are one of very few cheesemakers that produce organic double cream for our burrata. It’s an expensive raw material,” Claudio continues, “but we like to have control over everything in our product. That’s the merit of being near a farm. I am meticulous about the provenance of everything in our cheeses.”
Every day De Luca produces between 50 to 100 kilograms of burrata, supplying Borough Market and numerous restaurants across the country, including several with Michelin stars. When I ask why he thinks the Brits are so big on burrata right now, he puts it down to two reasons: cream and butter are nectar to the Anglo-Saxon palate, so burrata is “automatically going to be something that feels very natural to them”; and, next to mozzarella, burrata is simply more versatile.
“With its creamy filling, it can be combined with loads of ingredients, whereas mozzarella is drier and more acidic, so it really has to be with tomatoes or something similar.” Mark Hix, one of Claudio’s clients, serves burrata with cherries as a dessert, he continues. We wouldn’t say no—though for us at least, burrata is at its best in the starter section: a creamy, tangy, hazelnutty, textural tantaliser, smeared onto sourdough bread and scatted with cracked pepper, to take the edge off your hunger while animatedly discussing the mains.