La Fauxmagerie in London looks like any cheesemongers – there’s soft cheeses, ricottas, parmesans – except here, everything’s vegan. “Most of our cheeses are made for cheeseboards,” says Emily Kelly, community manager at La Fauxmagerie, as she hands me a sliver of Shoreditch Smoked. I can’t help but want and compare it to dairy cheese, only to be stumped – this is something unique. Kelly serves me a nibble of Balham Blue, made from almond and sweet potato, and I’m immediately impressed by the resemblance to dairy blue cheese; it has a great funk. With the Brick Lane Bree, made from almond and shea butter, the dairy comparisons are gone again, while the use of penicillium candidum adds the requisite brie rind, it’s a complex, bright flavour that defies categorisation.
Everything people used to say about non-dairy cheese – that it’s rubbery and sad – appears to be history. Modern plant-based cheese isn’t just for those avoiding dairy anymore, but a standalone product that competes on flavour; Kelly tells me their cheeses also appeal to customers who are flexitarian, lactose intolerant, pregnant or looking to reduce their cholesterol. In the UK, seven per cent of households buy vegan cheese, meaning it’s not just the 0.8 per cent who’re vegan. The UK vegan cheese market is now worth £40.2 million, which is positive when considering how vegan food has a much smaller climate footprint than dairy. But ethical concerns remain, casting a shadow over vegan cheese’s sustainability credentials.
Plant-based cheeses appeal to customers who are flexitarian, lactose intolerant, pregnant or looking to reduce their cholesterol. Emily Kelly, community manager at La Fauxmagerie.
La Fauxmagerie estimates their cheese emits 95 per cent less greenhouse gas and uses 89 per cent less water than dairy cheese; simply avoiding the energy-intensive process of growing a cow for milk is a solid head start in the climate stakes. But as vegan cheese is primarily made from nuts like almond, coconut and cashew, it does come with humanitarian concerns: these nuts are often harvested by people working in dangerous conditions, earning very low wages.
“Vegan products are often scrutinised on their ethics to a greater extent than their dairy equivalents. And why not? It’s a challenge vegan companies can definitely rise to, not least because the dairy industry has set such a low bar,” says Jasmine Owens, a writer, researcher and director at Ethical Consumer, whose rankings of UK vegan cheeses found large sustainability discrepancies across the sector.
As with any product that’s widely produced, Owen says that differences in quality and ethics is to be expected: “What’s important is that consumers do their research, [and] support companies with strong ethical practices and avoid those doing damage.”
In the UK, seven per cent of households buy vegan cheese, meaning it’s not just the 0.8 per cent who’re vegan. Source: Kantar Grocery and AHDB
Small producers like La Fauxmagerie, available from Waitrose cheese counters, score highly on ethics as well as flavour. “We’ve received five star reviews on La Fauxmagerie’s Brixton Blue and Shoreditch Smoked, which is a testament to the improvements made in the texture and taste of vegan cheeses,” says Carly Stage, a cheese buyer at Waitrose. “Products like La Fauxmagerie allow our shoppers to support smaller, artisanal brands which pride themselves on their sustainably credentials.”
But what about the pre-packed, cheddar-style blocks competing for our sandwiches and cheese-topped dinners? The provenance of these ingredients is often less clear, leading to questions about sustainability.
When Cathedral City, the UK’s best selling cheese, added a coconut-based cheddar to its roster last autumn, vegans rejoiced; the flavour is exceptional and it melts beautifully. Vegan cheese is scientifically challenging, and the new Cathedral City is the result of lengthy experimenting of different ingredients and technologies: “Some ingredients that improve texture or meltability can have a negative impact on flavour. […] Cheddar also has different notes when eaten cold [or] cooked,” says Neil Stewart, head of marketing for Cathedral City at Saputo Dairy UK. “We were adamant our plant-based needed to taste, look and feel as close to [dairy] cheddar as possible.”
Saputo Dairy did not respond to questions about how they source the coconuts, leaving us with Ethical Consumer’s less than stellar sustainability ranking. But in light of the climate crisis, should we really be knocking a non-dairy cheese that can please even strident dairy lovers?
Saputo Dairy did not respond to questions about how they source the coconuts, leaving us with Ethical Consumer’s less than stellar sustainability ranking.
“Cheese is often the hardest thing to give up, and for many vegans it’s the last animal product removed from their diet,” says Maisie Stedman, spokesperson for The Vegan Society. She views the popularity of Cathedral City Plant Based as positive for “opening up the market to a larger number of people who may not have otherwise considered giving up dairy”. Stedman is sympathetic to the difficulty in adjusting after a lifetime of eating certain foods: “Alternatives [that more closely resemble dairy] allow people to enjoy familiar dishes without compromising their values of kindness and compassion.”
We don’t make vegan burrata. Burrata is a product with its own culture and history, and a specific way of creating it using animal ingredients. We make Burella. Axel Katalan, founder of plant-based brand Julienne Bruno.
Nowhere on plant-based food brand Julienne Bruno’s packaging does it say ‘vegan’. And founder Axel Katalan tells me this is deliberate: “We don’t make vegan burrata. Burrata is a product with its own culture and history, and a specific way of creating it using animal ingredients. We make Burella.”
Though the process is not dissimilar. Like any dairy, Julienne Bruno ferments the ingredients; the word ‘cheese’ itself derives from ‘kwat’, meaning to ferment or become sour. The company opted to use coconut because of how its fat content mimics dairy, and chose soy for its protein content and long tradition in Asia. The brand’s ethics credentials are strong too: the organic ingredients are fully traceable, and Katalan says they’re in the process of securing B-Corp accreditation.
But in order to truly compete with dairy, vegan cheese can’t just be the better ethical choice, it has to taste great. “From a mass consumer perspective, if it doesn’t taste good, nobody’s going to buy it,” says Katalan, whose products are sold at Whole Foods, Ocado and in restaurants. The goal is to win people over through “seduction and gastronomy”, not confrontation: “We want to create products that people love, not because it’s vegan, but because it’s a good product.”