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20 Waitrose stores broke new ground in December 2022 – they offered a £25 hamper of mixed, artisan, vegan cheeses. It followed the supermarket’s introduction in May of four lines with dairy-like names – Truffle Camemvert, Brixton Blue, Shoreditch Smoked and Balham Blue.
I hear they’re being supplied by La Fauxmagerie. Those people who caused such a stink when they opened in London’s Brixton in February 2019. Yes, they dared to use the word cheese for a dairy-free product. Defending the interests of milk processors, Dairy UK accused them of misleading the public.
By fine vegan cheese, do you mean that processed slime made from coconut oil?
No. We’re talking about a product good-looking enough to accompany crackers and quince paste on a cheeseboard. Cashews or almonds are fermented and aged with white miso or nutritional yeast for savouriness. Producers use the same bacterial cultures as for dairy cheese – penicillium roqueforti in the Balham Blue.
What’s behind the fine vegan cheese trend?
New vegans miss dairy cheese more than any other animal food. They are disappointed by many ‘first wave’ vegan cheeses. There is strong demand for plant-based cheese, motivating continual innovation by producers.
Isn’t the expression ‘fine vegan cheese’ a contradiction in terms?
Patricia Michelson, founder of dairy cheese purveyor, La Fromagerie, thinks so. “The core of our brand identity is about taste and tradition. We don’t feel any vegan cheese yet on the market has the potential to convey terroir – that sense of place.
“Neither do we accept the premise upon which vegan cheeses are founded – that all dairy is a monolith and all automatically bad for the environment and animal welfare.
Our traditional cheeses have historical and cultural value and represent farming practices with exemplary environmental, animal husbandry and biodiversity credentials.”
There were seven different cheese-and-wine plates when you ate at La Fauxmagerie’s The Cheese Cellar in east London. How did they taste?
Our favourite was The Blue plate – a Brixton Blue and Balham Blue accompanied by pickled pears, caper-berries, walnut bread and Malbec. We were intrigued by a baked truffle Camembert-like cheese roasted with fresh rosemary, accompanied by vegan honea and with Levain baguette chunks for dunking. It was oilier and less creamy than baked dairy Camembert but enjoyable, particularly with Champagne.
What’s the biggest challenge for non-dairy cheese?
Cost because nuts are expensive. There are few UK producers and they haven’t yet developed a good Cheddar or Halloumi. AltCheese Ltd. of Shepton Mallet – exhibitors at September’s Speciality & Fine Food Fair – are trying hard; we like the texture of their AltFarms Cheddar even if the ingredients – oat, coconut oil, potato starch and fava beans are disconcerting.
Many products are too soft. This was one of the reasons Aldi rejected a televised supplier pitch from vegan cheese producer, I am Nut OK (Channel 4, Aldi’s Next Big Thing).
Taste is still an issue, isn’t it?
One supermarket buyer told us would-be vegans are often advised to give up all cheese for six months before going plant-based; the implication being they won’t then remember how wonderful good cheese tastes.
Whose brands do you recommend?
Established in 2018, and named after Crystal Palace, Palace Culture has won a slew of Great Taste Awards for such cheezes as The Mouldy Goaty, Herbes de Provence, Kimcheeze and Almond Ricotta. Founder Mirko Parmigiani is of Italian descent; he was motivated to create new cheezes that his dairy-intolerant son could enjoy.
How can we make the most of the trend?
You’ll do better in vegan hotspots such as Brighton, East Sussex and Manchester. The stores chosen for Waitrose’s trial include Guildford, Weybridge and Leigh on Sea. Use a specialist wholesaler like Kent-based Curd & Cure.
Don’t expect plant-based cheeses to smell, taste or behave like their dairy equivalents. They don’t need to breathe so keep them wrapped and refrigerated. Don’t leave soft, nut-based vegan cheeses out for long periods or they will dry out and discolour.
Will the trend last?
Much depends on whether producers can come up with the goods. Naturalness is still a concern. Yet whoever would have predicted that by 2023, more than one in three British people would drink plant-based milk (Mintel).
According to Mintel, 26% of dairy cheese eaters and buyers are reducing their intake for environmental concerns. These reducetarians could well swap if vegan cheese improved.
Meanwhile, upmarket, dairy-free, sharing platters present an excellent opportunity if your customers are young, urban, vegan and reducetarian.
Style your plates, shout about it on your socials and the hipsters will seek you out. It will be interesting to see what happens at Waitrose.