So, the day is finally here… we’re two weeks into Veganuary and I’m allowed cheese again! I’ve been really looking forward to today – though also slightly trepidatious, as my one previous experience of vegan cheese wasn’t very good. A colleague had brought some in a while back, and it was all pallid and white and sweaty and smelled like feet (and tasted similar) – the embodiment of the reason that some people insist on calling vegan cheese ‘gary’ rather than cheese. But Si insisted we would find a kind that I liked…
So it was that we found ourselves doing some more kitchen science… we decided to do this thoroughly, trying each of the four cheeses individually (two pieces each raw, and two each melted, on little bits of bread, cleansing our palate between each one with a fizzy pear drink we had bought from Ikea), and scoring them out of ten for taste, texture, and ‘cheese-ness’ (how convincing they were as cheese – ie, would you guess in a blind taste-test ).
First up was the mozzarella with basil that we bought at Hackney Downs market. It’s made by Black Arts Vegan, and is made using coconut milk and soya. It certainly looks the part, and the basil has a lovely fresh smell. Under the grill, too, it bubbled and melted promisingly… but unfortunately this cheese proved to be a bit of a disappointment.
Raw, we both agreed, the texture was very like ‘real’ mozzarella, and the taste of the basil was beautiful – but the cooked version was rather anticlimactic. The ‘bubbles’ and surface texture was oddly papery, and beneath that the cheese had dissolved into a while sauce that really didn’t taste of much at all – I’m glad we went for the basil version, as the other, plain one on sale, would have been a bit boring, I think. Si says he could see how it might work on a pizza, but my problem is that it didn’t have the stretch and stringiness that makes cooked mozzarella so yummy.
Next we tried a smoked cheese from Tesco’s Free From range. This looked very realistic too, and smelled convincingly smoked cheese (‘not of petrol, as I had feared’, Jones says). Raw, I wasn’t keen – I found the texture a bit chalky – but it continued to convince, while to Si it was ‘very nearly like a crumbly Lancashire’. The taste was subtly smokey, not overpowering but very tasty and again, realistic. It was when the cheese was melted under the grill that it really came into its own: it melted beautifully, and the ‘mouth-feel’ was absolutely lovely – it coated your teeth and tongue and the roof of your mouth just like real cheese. In a blind taste test I’d have never guessed it was vegan – just beautiful. There you go, a vegan cheese that I like!
The third cheese we tried was a ‘blue’, again from Tesco’s Free From range. This was less successful. Upon opening the packet it looked the part, and smelled convincingly blue too (though to me, there was a bleachy undertone) – but the texture was all wrong. You expect a blue cheese either to be soft and creamy, or crumbly, and this was neither – raw, it was weirdly waxy. The taste was fairly unpleasant too – very astringent, not unrealistic, but not very nice – ‘like an overly harsh blue cheese’, and ‘very synthetic’, was Si’s verdict. Once cooked, things improved a bit – the cheese melted nicely and had a lovely silky, gooey texture, with a richer taste, but Si was still not a happy bunny. ‘I would happily never see this cheese again,’ he said. Me, I’d be curious to try it in, say, a broccoli and ‘stilton’ soup, but I wouldn’t eat it on its own. Si left his second raw slice. Nuff said.
Last but not least, we sampled Violife’s ‘cheddar-flavoured block’, which we’d bought from a vegan shop during our ‘sploring yesterday. ‘This is the good stuff,’ Si had said at the time of purchase, so I was eager to see if this cheese lived up to its reputation. When we opened the packet I was a bit perturbed by the colour – it was a warm orange shade, more Double Gloucester than what I’d associate with cheddar – but undeterred we sliced it up and popped some in the oven. Our views differed more on this cheese than on any of the others.
For me, raw was a bit meh – it was slightly squeaky in texture, and the flavour was very, very mild – not at all what I’d associate with cheddar (but then, I’m an extra mature cheese kind of girl). But Si was experiencing something entirely different as he ate his share – it was ‘lovely, with a proper creamy taste’, he said.
Cooked, the cheese was transformed – it had a much better flavour melted, I thought, and the texture was rich and soft. Still not cheddary – to me, it tasted like the square slices of plastic American burger cheese that you can buy in packs of ten – but it was tasty nonetheless. And best of all it had the stretch and stringiness that the mozzarella really should have had. Si was very impressed: ‘the right texture, with a tangy, almost iron-like aftertaste that cheese should have,’ he said. ‘It coated your mouth like the smoked cheese but was a bit more rubbery, and there was nothing synthetic about it. In a taste test I would struggle to say it wasn’t real cheese. Tesco value cheese, maybe, but cheese nonetheless.’
After we had given our scores, a quick google explained both the cheese’s orange colour and its plasticky American texture… apparently American cheddar is orange! So now we know.
The scores are in… and if we just take our marks for taste and texture into account, the smokey and cheddar cheeses are joint first (with blue third and mozzarella last). Once you factor in the convincingess of their ‘cheeseness’, though, the smokey cheese comes out on top. That was definitely my favourite of the four overall – though for the record, the cheddar was Jones’.
We celebrated by having a bit more of each of our favourites on toast. I’m so happy that I can eat cheese again!