From the abominable to the irresistible vegan cheese has come a long way, as Sally-Anne Bedford’s tastebuds can testify…
There are two things I remember eating that were so bad, I can still recall the exact moment the food battered my taste buds over 20 years later. The first was a green olive, which I chewed for about three seconds before running off to a toilet to spit it out in disgust. The second was a small innocent looking cube of vegan cheese, circa 1989.
It would be hard to accurately describe the taste of that pale soy-based assailant, but imagine if you will eating burnt rubber, gently marinated for five years in wet cardboard and you might get somewhere near the culinary experience. Needless to say it was a very long time before I was brave enough to dip my toe in the waters of dairy-free cheese again.
When I ask vegetarians what stops them becoming vegan, cheese seems to be the main stumbling block. We have such an emotional connection to this versatile yellow, orange and sometimes blue food, that for many it seems unimaginable to cut it out of their diet completely. One of my favourite memories as an infant was coming home from playschool and having four little squares of cheese on toast lovingly made by my mum. Even now it is one of the only non-vegan foods that I like the smell of. Growing up I had cheese in many forms, ploughman’s lunch, baked cheese and egg, cheese toastie and the best of all, mum’s homemade cheese and potato pie. Given the amount of cheese I ate growing up, it’s a wonder I’m not wedge-shaped.
Back to the ‘80s
Anybody that was vegetarian during the 1980s will also know that practically every vegetarian option offered outside the home was something cheese-based. If you had also decided to omit dairy from your diet, then you were looking at lettuce leaves and half a tomato as a dining out option. None of your pesto or avocado dressing then my friend, or at least not in the small northern village I came from. So cutting out the Cheddar back then seemed like culinary suicide.
In the end for me, like many, it was learning about the realities of the dairy industry that made me bid farewell to milk-based cheese in all forms. Once you see the life of a dairy cow in all its sad, short horror, you can’t un-see it and, well, that cheese on toast will never taste quite as good again. At this point in my life it wouldn’t have mattered whether there was an alternative or not, I’d just rather have lived without it. But luckily for me, in the last 10 years the vegan cheese market has grown exponentially and, I’m happy to say, so has the quality and taste!
Supermarket cheese sweep
In 2018, the array of alternatives to dairy-based cheese is mind-blowing. The last couple of years have seen the major UK supermarkets stocking not only other brands, but making their own versions to cash in on the demand. It’s hard to describe just how incredible it is to be able to walk into Tesco or Sainsbury’s, and just take down from the shelf vegan jalapeño and chilli Cheddar or vegan smoked cheese, when you grew up struggling to find a supermarket that stocked a packet of Beanfeast to rehydrate for dinner. No longer are these types of food something we have to scout out at vegan events or remote health food stores. Vegan cheese is everywhere now, even sprinkled openly in high street pizza chains.
I love all of these cheeses for giving me the opportunity to recreate childhood dishes without using animal products, but if you prefer a less processed option then there are many available for you in the form of nut, tofu and even potato based ‘cheeses’. The raw food movement is very health aware and I promise that once you start exploring what is possible using only plant-based ingredients, you will be hooked. This magic alchemy is a great addition to your pantry and fridge and you will find many of these cheeses online, or in specialised health food stores. I can highly recommend Tyne & Chease who do incredibly exotic flavours like Za’atar Spice, Ethiopian Spice and Rosemary cheese. May I suggest cracking open the posh crackers for these though, to really make the most of the experience.
Just as in dairy cheese, there will be types you like and types you don’t. Vegan cheese comes in every imaginable flavour, so if at first you don’t succeed, please try and try again. If you’re lucky enough to make it to a vegan fair this year, you’ll find that brands like Sheese often have stands, and they will put out samples of all the different flavours, so you will be able to discover your perfect match. A couple of my favourites are Sainsbury’s own brand (shredded), which I use in sandwiches and on top of pizzas, and Vegusto’s Moo-Free Aromatic, a gorgeous cheese that probably won’t even make it to the cracker or pizza it’s so good.
Board not bored
For a cheese board, I like the smoked varieties of both Vegdeli’s Cheezly brand and Sheese, and for dusting over your vegan spaghetti bolognese, Violife’s Prosociano Wedge is a must. If you want to make your own (see the preceding pages for starters), you will also find many recipes online for cheese and cheeses sauces, from nut-based ones that are very easy to make, cheese dips for your Abigail’s Party type soirées, all the way to child pleasing mac ‘n’ cheese recipes for the big and little kids in your life. Parmesan, fondue, cream cheese… nothing is off the menu anymore.
And so I remember back to that first taste of vegan cheese which, along with ra-ra skirts and Kylie & Jason, are firmly in my past. Everything evolves and, in the case of vegan cheese, it has become something readily available, affordable and, unlike the 1980s’ version, absolutely delicious. Now, if I could just find that recipe for cheese and potato pie to veganize…
Sally-Anne is a writer and animal artist who has written for international, national and local print and digital publications. A vegetarian since the age of 12 and vegan since 2005, her passion is animals and, in particular, dogs, who frequently pop up in her pet portraits. She shares her life with four dogs, five pigs and a hamster called Ricardo.