• This imitation cheese has come along way and is good enough to rival the dairy version. (Getty)Source: Getty
From vegan Roquefort to Parmesan – it’s possible to find great dairy-free cheese in Australia.
Lee Tran Lam

27 Mar 2018 - 1:42 PM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2018 - 3:15 PM

If cheese is a deal-breaker when it comes to considering a vegan diet – here’s the good news. Across Australia, there are people creating alternatives that can properly melt and deliver the savoury punch of everything from Parmesan to Roquefort. So whether you’re just skipping the dairy or can’t consume it for dietary or health reasons, here are examples of vegan cheese you’ll want to try (or slather on toast).

Mister Toast, Sydney

Heidi Abraham and Zac Wolf are known for their cheesy toasties – the kind with golden, stringy, stretching powers when you pull apart the slices. But how hard was it for them to nail a vegan substitute that mimicked the real thing?

“After initially sampling some of the vegan ‘cheezes’ commercially available in shops, we knew we wanted to steer away from the plasticky high-fat, high-salt varieties,” says Abraham. They were lucky that Wolf had some legit cheese-making intel from his time working at both Tongola goat farm and Bruny Island Cheese Co in Tasmania. Plus, he’d previously been head of the raw food section at The Vegie Bar in Melbourne, which meant he knew how to flex high-speed blenders and dehydrators to create convincing vegan alternatives for dishes.  

Together, they hit cookbooks and online recipes. By using plant-based culturing techniques – and applying them to a blend of organic cashews, almond milk and miso – they created Cashiso. 

“Cashiso’s ability to melt was a key factor – we wanted to capture that gooeyness which makes cheese toasties so craveable,” she says.

They knew they were successful when they managed to win over both health-conscious customers (keen on a cheesy experience without the cholesterol hit) and vegans who wanted to relive their memories of bygone curd-oozing toasties.

The Cashiso appears in the signature shiitake bacon toastie, but that’s not the only home-made vegan cheese that’s been showcased on the Mister Toast menu.

The Philly Cheezesteak has featured grilled mushrooms, green peppers and a gooey ‘cheeze’ sauce made with tapioca (the key ingredient “that makes it stretchy”), while the Ramona Toastie has grilled garlic ‘konjac prawns’ paired with a nut-free sweet potato Manchego.

And if you’re not enough of a cheese-making nerd to experiment with cashew and miso quantities to make your own version, you’ll be happy to know that Mister Toast is readying take-home versions of its creation for sale. Early trial versions have been used by customers as a pasta sauce, cheese platter star, dip alternative or natural toastie accompaniment.

Grown, Brisbane

Sesame cheese is well-deployed on the menu of Brisbane’s Grown: the vegan cafe uses it in the house-smoked potato mash, as a spread on the scrambled tofu dish and it even gets a cameo in the avocado toastie with house-made Vegemite.

This dairy alternative is worth taking notice of: it’s made by Fënn Foods, a company run by Alejandro Cancino, the three-hatted chef behind Urbane. So how does he make it?

“I believe it is a blended product, made from tahini, cashew and miso as a base,” says Grown’s manager, Sacha Muchall, who knew he had to score Fënn’s range after trying a range of vegan options – he considers Cancino’s creation a category-killing winner. Grown uses the traditional sesame version, as well as the smoked flavour, which is smoked in batches using traditional methods.

The cheese is so good that Muchall is besieged by diners enquiring how they can buy it and stock it in their own fridges. He’s not surprised: “I think the sesame cheese holds up well against traditional animal milk cheeses, as it has recreated many similar flavour characteristics of cheese styles such as feta or chèvre.” Test it out on the Grown menu – or at one of the monthly guest degustations that Cancino holds at Grown.

Extraordinary Foods, available nationally

We’ve all learnt our lessons after encountering iffy cans of dried Parmesan cheese – the cakey powder with the sickening smell that often sits on tables as a cheap alternative to the real deal. One or two shakes of the clumpy ‘cheese’ and you’ve undoubtedly given it a lifetime ban afterwards. Extraordinary Foods probably didn’t have to fight hard to make a vegan version that was better than this – but living up to its name, the Byron Bay brand produced a dairy-free version that’s actually great. Imagine a dukkah that tastes as salty and complex as Parmesan and you’re there.

Olga Plotnikova, who co-runs the company, says the team experimented with its Cashew Parmesan for nearly a year. It was tricky getting the mix right: producing something that was affordable for home cooks, worked on a large scale and was a quality everyone was happy with. In the end, the crew ended up using single-origin nuts from a small cashew farm in east Bali. “These cashew nuts are fermented overnight, dehydrated and blended with sunflower seeds, nutritional yeasts, lemon peel and kale,” she says. It’s soy-free and doesn’t contain the odd-sounding chemical additives that can turn up on vegan cheese labels.

As someone who’s been vegetarian from birth, and mainly sticks to a healthy vegan diet, she’s a keen champion of dairy-free alternatives. Next, she’d like to create a nut-free vegan cheese.

Smith & Daughters, Smith & Deli and the Fromage A Trois festival, Melbourne

Chef Shannon Martinez is known for mastering vegan cheeses at her two Melbourne venues: there’s the original Smith & Daughters restaurant, which serves padron and 'cheese' croquettas and cauliflower con queso, as well as Smith & Deli, famous for its plant-based versions of delicatessen staples – like its brine-set vegan mozzarella.

But when asked to appear at the upcoming Fromage A Trois in April, she had reservations. Had someone known for vegan food even appeared at a cheese festival before?

“I almost didn’t do it, because I was kind of thinking, I’m going to be the joke of this entire festival,” she said. Was someone going to yell “imposter, get out of here!” from the crowd? But two things helped convince her to join the line-up.

The first was her success with vegan blue cheese – her ability to ace a dairy-free Roquefort.

“I have to admit that I haven’t done a lot of cheese making in the past, ‘real’ cheese making,” she says. Sure, she’d done “little bits, like most chefs do, like ricotta and mozzarella and those easier ones”. But with the trickier varieties – could she just apply the same techniques with vegan ingredients? To find out, she examined the fat content and protein of dairy products and then looked for the equivalent in nuts. First, the chef experimented with cashews only, then tried another mix with macadamias (which worked “pretty well”, due to the higher fat levels). Martinez bought freeze-fried mould online – proving that you can truly buy anything from the internet – and added it to the vegan milk she’d created.

“You need the teeniest amount – not even 1/8th of a teaspoon – and then you put it in the milk and then you just go ahead like normal and it just blooms,” she says. “And then the moulds from that cheese will be enough to set off the next batch.”

Her experiments worked.

The second incident that convinced Martinez to appear at Fromage A Trois was the enthusiastic reaction her friend – Anthony Femia – had when trying her vegan Roquefort. He’s the cheese guru behind Maker & Monger at Melbourne’s Prahran Market, and when he sampled her dairy-free blue, he said “it was pretty hard to pick the difference between the vegan one and the real one – so that’s really exciting”.

He’s been advising her with each new batch made (an early experiment was a little too fuzzy and overrun with mould) and with each improved update, Martinez is close to getting it out there. “If it’s not amazing, we’re not going to sell it. It can’t just be okay.”

Has she mastered the all-important, nose-punching smell of blue cheese, though?

“Oh my god, yeah,” she says. “It stinks and it’s awesome.”

Fromage A Trois will be the first time the public can try her vegan Roquefort. Martinez will also be serving other dairy-free cheeses at the event, too (such as pizza with her plant-based mozzarella).

“Hopefully we can convince some people at this festival that if cheese is the last thing to get you over the line to be vegan or whatever it is, there is a possibility that we can get there.”

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