Marie Hadasova calls her relationship with cheese "the biggest love of my life". She lists her favourites: mouldy cheeses, washed rinds and Camembert. "The stronger and smellier, the better," she says.
She was working at the Michelin-starred Restaurant U Santa Marina in Corsica, France, when she fell hard for its cheese trolley full of "beautiful" wedges and slices. "That was the start of the cheese-lover journey for me."
So when she switched to a vegan diet – many years later – giving up cheese was a challenge. "I was struggling with that for months, and especially working in hospitality. I would have a guilt trip afterwards if I had a piece."
Out of frustration and curiosity, she decided to make a plant-based cheese. "That's how I came up with the Camembert, which is about a year and a half ago."
Her next experiment – vegan blue cheese – was such a success that it ended up changing her life.
"I was co-organising a vegan festival, which was called The Ahimsa Festival at Wisemans Ferry," Hadasova says. "We were looking for people to do workshops and we were running out of options. And I thought, 'Listen, I have this blue cheese ageing in the fridge, it looks quite good, why don't I do a cheese workshop?' I brought it with me, and I had no idea how popular it would be. People loved it."
She shared the vegan blue cheese recipe with attendees, who diligently wrote it down. But once they learned it had to be aged for four weeks in the fridge – and required flipping every day – they protested. "Everyone just goes, 'no way! Where can I buy it?'"
Hadasova brings many years of hospitality experience to Dilectio (the industry is in her blood: her parents are chefs and she grew up with a family restaurant in the Czech Republic).
Sponberg, meanwhile, contributes business expertise. He's overseen an IT consulting business for many years – and his entrepreneurial streak started early.
At school, he'd resell sherbet packets he bought from the supermarket to other students – for a tidy sum. "Apparently the school canteen didn't have enough unhealthy options at the time and I was a hit in the playground," he says.
"I'd come home with my pockets literally bulging with change. It was pretty fun."
The duo started selling Dilectio's blue cheese at the Sydney Vegan Market in October 2018, a few months after the festival workshops. One of their first visitors was an international cheese judge.
"He tries the blue cheese and he goes, 'wow!'" recalls Hadasova. He told them their version was good enough to compete against traditional blue cheese. "Our jaws just dropped. That was an awesome [revelation]."
"We learnt so much from the dairy industry itself, because they've had the recipes for centuries, right?"
Especially as Hadasova began her vegan cheese-making experiments as a total novice. So how did she approach making the plant-based range in the first place?
"There was a lot of research online," she says. "We learnt so much from the dairy industry itself because they've had the recipes for centuries, right?"
She essentially follows the same steps used to make traditional cheeses, from fermentation to ageing. "All we do is, we remove the milk and we [add] the cashews instead."
"When it came to cashews, we didn't have any suppliers, so we were literally driving to every single Aldi in the neighbourhood and buying 250g packets of cashews, which was just ridiculous," she says.
They got strange looks for hoarding cashews. They hunted out second-hand fridges to store their hundreds of ageing cheeses and started their business with home blenders they found on eBay – which had a tendency to deafen users and overheat.
Then there was the mould.
"At the beginning, you learn quite quickly which are the good ones, which are the bad ones," she says. But the blue-cheese mould – which is airborne by nature – had a tendency to contaminate nearby cheeses, like the pristine white Camembert ageing in the same fridge.
So they ended up having to duplicate everything, and store the cheeses in separate fridges in the same room. "And that didn't work," says Sponberg. So they put the fridges in opposite ends of their house – but the blue-cheese mould had a way of sneaking its way in.
"We had air purifiers in the room and isolation around the door and [were] extremely careful about sanitising everything," says Hadasova. They became "paranoid", and started excessively showering and changing clothes, but couldn't stop the blue cheese mould from reaching the Camembert. They even talked to dairy producers, who complained about the same problem.
"So we were forced to have two production spaces," says Hadasova. The blue cheese is made at home, while other Dilectio products are aged in a commercial kitchen. They include the vegan Camembert and a plant-based goat's cheese chèvre, which is rolled in activated charcoal and draws on the flavour profile of 14 different plants.
In Sydney, Dilectio's range flavours the menus at Gardener's Lodge and Two Chaps, and is available by the slice at Suzy Spoon's Vegetarian Butcher. It's also found in various eateries and outlets across the country and can be bought directly from the Dilectio site.
You can also try the blue cheese, Camembert and chèvre at one of Dilectio's vegan wine and cheese nights – there's one planned for February, with proceeds directed to the Moo To Ewe sanctuary, which looks after 40 rescued animals. For each cheese sold, Dilectio makes a donation. "In the last six months, we've been able to double that donation," says Sponberg.
In the future, Dilectio hopes to add more European-style cheeses to its range and expand its reach into supermarkets. But in the meantime, Sponberg and Hadasova are grateful for people who still buy cheese directly from their Sydney Vegan Market stall every month.
They quote the memorable responses easily ("I took your cheese to a company party and I didn't tell anyone it was vegan, they wouldn't even believe it was vegan!"). And they're humbled by the people who have become vegan.
"I even get feedback from non-vegan customers that [say], 'Wow, I prefer your cheese more, as it's actually creamier," says Hadasova.
"I believe that people don't eat dairy cheeses because of the dairy, they eat it because they want the experience, the mouthfeel," she adds.
"If you can provide the same experience using plants, they have no problem switching."
This pizza has flavor on top of flavor! Pesto, red sauce and a melty mozz sauce on top. Plus, cherry tomatoes that roast right into it (use multicolored ones if you can find them) and fresh basil leaves to complete your entire world.
Substituting a biscuit crumb for a macadamia and date one gives a nutty crust base for the rich caramel and chocolate layers.