Vegan cheese has been suffering a bad case of Fomo – fear of missing out on the vegan food revolution. Some of the new, plant-based products have been groundbreaking, such as the Impossible Burger, which not only tastes like cow, but also “bleeds” like one. Some, such as mock duck in gravy, are startlingly bad.
But with vegan cheese, quality versions have been so late to the party, you would be forgiven for not letting them in even if they brought a nice bottle of vegan wine. At last, 2017 was a big one for vegan cheese. Most supermarkets started stocking it. A vegan friend points me towards Sainsbury’s coconut-based vegan cheddar and a feta substitute “that is getting close”, although lately he is excited about a very realistic vegan parmesan from Ocado. There’s now a vegan camembert made with cashew nut milk and even Domino’s has rolled out a vegan pizza in Australia and New Zealand.
Cheese, my friend says, is the thing he initially missed the most – the meat quitter’s after-dinner fag – but these recent developments have provided hope. Small grains of hope, but ones that can be harvested and turned into more vegan cheese. Because you can make vegan cheese from almost anything. Cauliflower, chickpeas, rice, nuts, seeds, quinoa, courgette, even carrageenan, a type of seaweed extract spelled by your cat walking across your keyboard, which is excellent for firm or wheel cheeses.
Buoyed, I sampled a few. Tyne’s smoked paprika “chease” is a bestseller, but looks like a sponge and tastes predominantly of smoke. Vegan’s “cheeze” balls are essentially haunted by garlic. Tyne’s creamy classic cashew is nicer, while NV’s parmesan substitute is fine.
Why it’s so hit and miss is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s because cheese is pretty hard to make without dairy, or because we hold cheese in some sort of cultural reverence – there’s cheese and there’s cheese, but now there’s chease, cheeze and sheese. And that’s the first sticking point – the name. I am, however, fully on board with alternative names, such as “Mozzarisella”, mozzarella made from rice, which is way more fun than Tesco’s elliptical “Free From” version, made with coconut oil and soya. It’s still not a patch on Vegusto’s No-Moo Piquant, though, whom I definitely saw play Glastonbury once.
This is not a screed about veganism. As a non-vegan who is too weak to divest herself from dairy, this cheese is not meant for me. Rather, I admire these small acts of bravery: some of them coming in French-looking boxes, others on a bed of straw like baby Jesus. And if some of them melt on pasta, then great. It’s also true that whatever vegan cheese is made of, it couldn’t possibly be weirder than the bodily fluids of animals mixed together and left to go mouldy.