Crafting a delicate, wobbly orb of Vannella burrata isn’t for the faint of heart. Cheesemakers tip cow’s-milk curds into a 92-degree water bath and plunge their bare hands into the hot liquid to stretch the curds. With each pull, the mass comes together, until it turns to smooth, shiny lengths that become the base for mozzarella, fior di latte, bocconcini and burrata – cheeses that belong to the pasta filata (meaning “spun paste”, or “stretched curd”) family.
“Burrata has two elements: the skin from the cow’s milk curd, and the heart, the beautifully creamy stracciatella,” says Anthony Silvio, creative director at Vannella, a celebrated Italian cheesemaker whose pasta filata cheeses can be found at restaurants across Sydney, including Aria, Ormeggio, A’Mare, and Love Tilly Devine, and further afield at Melbourne’s Bar Rosella, Perth’s Lulu La Delizia, and many more.
Husband and wife Vito and Pina Minoia (the Vannella name comes from Pina’s father) started their operation in Cairns in 2004, moving to Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west 10 years later.
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“Stracciatella is made first. They pull mozzarella into fine stringy pieces and bathe them in fresh cream before resting the mixture in the cool room. Then the skin is made from a ball of mozzarella stretched over the palm and fingers into a thin, round sheet that’s filled with the cream mixture and knotted by hand,” explains Silvio.
Compared to Vannella’s fine handmade cheese, machine-made burrata is clumsy. The skin is too thick, and in place of a knot on top there’s a seam where the ball was sealed and cut by a machine. The human touch is conspicuously absent.
“It’s an artisan product,” says Silvio of Vanella’s cheese. "So there are very slight variations, and that’s the uniqueness and beauty of it. At the same time, there’s a feel you develop over the years, so even handmade becomes quite uniform. You know how much the cheese should stretch, how hot the curd should be. All these things you get to know through experience.”
Over the last 50 years, Vito’s deft hands have stretched, filled and knotted thousands of balls of burrata. At 16 he was an apprentice cheesemaker in Conversano, Puglia in the south-east of Italy, where burrata was born. He and Pina opened Caseificio Vannella (Vannella Creamery), then had two children and made their way to Australia, landing in Cairns to make cheese near the dairy herds and buffalo whose luscious, higher-fat milk is ideal for making buffalo mozzarella. In 2014 they moved the operation to Marrickville where they make pasta filata cheese, plus Persian feta, buffalo and fresh ricotta, and Oaxaca cheese, a Mexican cheese that’s similar in texture to mozzarella.
As a traditional southern-Italian cheesemaker with three generations working in the business, Vannella is something special in Australia. But it’s not just the heritage that makes it extraordinary, it’s the starter culture used to inoculate the cheese that makes Vannella like no other.
In cheesemaking, whey is often a waste product. The cloudy liquid left behind when the curds form is typically thrown away, but at Vannella it’s used as a starter culture. Some of the whey is held in a tank at a warm temperature to ferment. The live cultures that grow are used to inoculate the milk in the following day’s production. “That means we have our flavour profile, that’s different to any cheese producer,” says Silvio.
But the culture isn’t just about flavour. “If you don’t acidify or culture the milk, the curd won’t stretch. When you dump the curd into hot water to stretch, if it doesn’t have the right pH level, it won’t stretch and it won’t be lovely and shiny.”
An unrelenting focus on perfection (“Vito says holidays don’t exist,” says Silvio) is the reason you’re likely to see one or two cheeses by Vannella when you open a menu at a Sydney restaurant.
“We’re so proud,” says Silvio. “The family has put [in] so much time, commitment, and hard work, and to have restaurants proudly put our name on the menu next to our cheese, it’s an incredible feeling.”
Sydney Pantry is a series celebrating ingredients made by Sydney’s greatest producers that have gone from cult classics to kitchen staples.