Burrata: Britain's new Big cheese

Ultra-soft, creamy burrata is replacing mozzarella as the grande formaggio on all the best menus. Genevieve Roberts tucks in

"It has the power to indulge, my suppliers keep saying they are selling more burrata in London than in the whole of Puglia," Francesco Mazzei, chef at L'Anima in East London enthuses.

The unctuous cheese, a delicacy from the southern heel of Italy and a richer cousin of mozzarella, was only available in the Puglia region until a decade ago. It is now the hottest item on menus from London to Edinburgh, Paris to Monaco to St Petersburg. Every new restaurant worth its salt in Britain, especially those that feature the European "sharing plate" philosophy, has burrata on the list.

Mary Contini, director of Valvona & Crolla, the Edinburgh delicatessen, describes it as "the new, luxury mozzarella". She says: "It has been appearing on Italian restaurant menus over the last few years, and although we have been selling it for almost four years, it is only now gaining popularity."

Burrata, made from stretched mozzarella formed into a pocket, is filled with the delightful richness of stracciatella, meaning "little rags", a mix of fresh cream and shredded mozzarella. Contini says the notoriously short shelf-life of the cheese, first made in the 1920s in Andria, previously provided a logistic challenge, but with it now on the market in smaller packets it's become more practical.

It is still far from ubiquitous, but where people try it they come back for more. At L'Anima, Mazzei's combination of burrata served with homemade onion jam, tossed hazelnuts, olive oil and herbs, on the menu for £9.50, is currently his best-selling dish. He receives a delivery from Andria three times a week, and uses it within 24-36 hours. The cheese is delivered to the restaurant wrapped in a green leaf, the fronds of an Italian plant called asphodel, part of the leek family. While the leaves remain green, the cheese is fresh; when they dry, it's past its best.

Mazzei says that while it shares similarities with mozzarella, it has an intrigue not shared by its cheese cousin. "Mozzarella is becoming boring, with respect, it's everywhere," he says. "Everybody should get to know this product, it's different, a light, fresh cheese."

It is traditionally served with Italian bread and olive oil, or with ripe tomatoes or aubergines, the food of southern Italy. Mary Contini recommends a "marriage" with asparagus.

While Mazzei has had the cheese on his menu for years, he says he is still in the studying phase of how best to serve it: "When it's the season we serve it with Sicilian aubergine, with a dressing of honey and wild oregano – the result is simply wow! We're also playing with it as a dessert, with homemade candied oil zest and dark chocolate grated on top, though we're working on this before it appears on a menu."

But he says that simplicity is the key with a cheese such as burrata. "It's a good lesson for us that with the right ingredients we should let products speak for themselves: as chefs we find it easy to complicate our lives." He also recommends it as an afternoon snack for children, and serves it to his four-year-old daughter Mia Sophia, who loves it served on bruschetta with tomato. "If you don't want to give sweets or biscotti, this is better than junk food," he says.

He first tried burrata in Puglia, served with rocket salad: "It is one of the best things I remember in my life: these are the things that make chefs crazy and happy," he says. He believes that once burrata has become commonplace, the next cheese trend will be for stracciatella, the rich, creamy middle of burrata without the mozzarella pocket.

Burrata also features on the menu at Yotam Ottolenghi's new restaurant, Nopi, which opened in Soho, London, last week. Breaking with Italian tradition, the cheese is served with coriander seeds, lavender, blood orange and toast. "As a key ingredient, it's spectacular, so we're taking it out of its natural habitat," Ottolenghi says. "It's completely luxurious, it smells of buffalo milk, and like foie gras, you can't not like it. The rich creaminess is very attractive, it's almost like butter, and I always serve bread to eat with it, I find it too rich otherwise."

Russell Norman, owner at Polpo and Polpetto restaurants in London, believes it is best served as a contrast dish. He first tasted burrata coupled with bitter turnip tops, and says it is a "good expression of agrodolce, the bitter-sweet taste combination popular in Italy". He serves it as a sweet-salt contrast dish at Polpetto, with salty puy lentils complimenting the sweet gooeyness of the burrata, served at room temperature.

He believes it is a seasonal dish, and better for the cooler months: in the height of summer – admittedly a briefer experience here than in Italy – he thinks there is more appeal to mozzarella, which is less creamy and offers a texture more popular in salads.

"If it didn't taste utterly divine it wouldn't sell," he says. "I think it's so popular because it's such a smart and delicious ingredient."

Outside of delicatessens and restaurants, home delivery company Natoora supplies the cheese to customers across Scotland, Wales and England, flown in from Puglia each Monday. Katherine Miller, content manager for the company which sells the cheese for £2.75, says the short shelf-life means that once dispatched, burrata should be eaten within two to three days.

Or if you want British-made burrata, Jody Scheckter, a former Formula One driver turned organic farmer, has more than 2,000 buffalo roaming on Laverstoke Park farm in Hampshire. He believes he's the only person in the UK making the cheese. "We're noticing an increase in demand," he says. "We made 150 burrata cheeses at our mozzarella plant yesterday for an order."

Ben Tsik, director of wholesaler Foodhouse, which supplies restaurants including Polpetto, says it combines sweet flavours with a fresh taste on the palate. But he warns, it is not the food of choice for slimmers, and makes mozzarella look healthy by comparison. "It's very rich and fatty. The cream that's added to the shredded mozzarella in the middle of the cheese makes it very nice, a food that is good for everyone once in a while – but in Italy it's like chocolate cake, you can't eat it every day."

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