I’ve never had a good experience with commercial vegan cheeses. I first tried Redwood’s cheezly about six years ago when I first ventured into veganism. Along with some odd, pink hued soya milk, I found it irreparably gross. Like, really, really gross. I was then a vegetarian trying to reduce dairy and I was a vegetarian who pretty much ate anything suitable for vegetarians. In other words, I am not a fussy eater (bar animal ingredients), and would eat something if I was hungry, even if I didn’t particularly enjoy the taste. Thus, my disgust at the cheeze was rather significant to me. It must have been bad.
In 2010, prior to becoming vegan, I started to learn more and more about the dairy and egg industries, including some horrid welfare implications as well as ecological. I had joined Viva! an incredible organisation set up as the International voice for animals. Some of their work includes undercover investigations into animal farming. They sent me a wealth of information, that just could not be ignored including the fete of dairy cows and bull calves on Cadbury farms and the foul live mincing of male chicks. This wasn’t some over the top, extremist activism, this was fact, backed up by undercover photographs, videos and voice recordings.
My first course of action was to source my dairy and eggs, organic, free range, high welfare from farms and shops that I knew and where I could see the animals. The bull calves were kept and grew up into teaser bulls or service bulls, much better than being shot at birth. The cockerels were kept to reproduce with the hens and lived free range in a paddock away from the layers.
Why didn’t I continue this lifestyle?
Well, before I knew it, it was all too easy to buy dairy and eggs as long as they were marked as organic. I never brought or ate non organic products but the sourcing of my ingredients sometimes was not up to standard. Supermarket organic was not the same as my local farm organic. Products can be labelled as organic if the animal has been fed an organic diet and treated with organic approved medications or alternative homeopathic treatment, despite levels of welfare (provided they meet legislative requirements).
I then continued to read about dairy and eggs. I was particularly affected by ‘Wheat Eaters or Meat Eaters’ by nutritionist Amanda Woodvine and ‘Your Health in Your Hands’ by Fellow of the Royal College of General Practice, Dr David Ryde. I started to think deeper than animal welfare which had always been my main interest and reason for turning vegetarian so young. I realised how absolutely unnatural it is to consume cows (or goats or sheeps etc) milk and to eat unfertilized eggs or fertilized embryos and how bad animal products are for our health and the world.
Cows bred for beef verify how unnatural the system is. A beef cow such as a Simmental will produce enough milk to feed her calves, and that is it. The suckling calf will stay with the mum in a more natural setting (until they are made into burgers of course). A dairy cow such as a Holstein-Friesian on the other hand, produces a dangerous amount of milk. She has been bred to make gallons of extra milk, not for calves, for us. After receiving the mother’s colostrum, vital for immunity, calves are taken from their mums, fed a powdered milk substitute out of a mechanical sucking device and we greedily consume the calves rightful nutrition. After turning vegan, so thankfully with a cleaner conscience, I was studying on a ‘high welfare’ dairy farm. One cow was so ‘bagged up’ that she stood legs apart. I was told that if she was not milked swiftly, her udders could actually ‘burst’. Her calf stood in a pen next door, with his powdered milk feeder well stocked, yet he suckled on my fingers, desperate for the comfort of suckling his mother. He would be killed for veal in less than a year after that day.
You may be wondering why I am not burning said farm down or stealing the calves or whatever. It’s simple. I have to go through the painful realities in order to have the knowledge to spend the rest of my life fighting for animals. A. What good am I to any creature if I’m in jail and B. behaviour like that would soon be forgotten about, and would not change anything, education is the only hope of changing the future for animals and our planet.
Believe me, it can be a very difficult thing, to write assignments about meat goats and what to feed for best muscle production for meat and an entire exam about animal slaughter. I am the only vegan (and even vegetarian) on my course. It can be a lonely experience, but I have to remember what I’m doing it for. Knowledge is power.
I very quickly became vegan after learning the truth about animal products. After the day I made the change, I can honestly say I have never sneaked a bit of cheese or scrambled an egg. Something happened whereby I was making the change because I was truly ready and truly wanted to, not because I thought I ‘should’ do. The idea of eating cheese and milk and eggs instantly became disgusting.
I went ‘cold turkey’ for about a month from cheese before trying alternatives. I’m not sure why but it felt the right thing to do. Perhaps my mind wanted me to be used to a vegetable and pulse based diet before having a bad experience with vegan cheese with the possibility of falling back to a vegetarian diet. I don’t know. I didn’t really miss it at all, as I said before, I had become quite disgusted with the idea of it. Mat still ate it along with meat (cheese but not meat at home) so it was even there for temptation, yet it didn’t tempt me.
The only thing I missed was cheese on a pasta bake. This was how I first tried vegan cheese again. I tried quite a few brands and flavours, from the more readily available and purse friendly brands to the more gourmet, expensive, mail order versions. Vegan cheese had definitely come a very long way since my first try 6 years ago and some of it was pleasant enough (some still just as gross as before!) but I realised that I didn’t really want to eat it, I wasn’t in love with it, I didn’t need to eat it, it was expensive and I didn’t like the ingredients. I always found it quite hard to eat, I always found it quite ‘questionable’. I preferred my pasta bake without it, I sprinkled the top with onion krispies and nuts and seeds instead and was in love with that. I guess my cheese alternative free first month paid off – I had learnt to love a more natural plant based diet.
Over the months of researching vegan recipes, I had come across a few homemade cheese recipes. Nut based, tofu based, agar set and more. None of them ever really stood out to me, especially with my vegan cheese experience, I’d let the idea of successfully replacing cheese go. For some reason, 18 months into veganism, after all the months of bypassing vegan cheese recipes, I came across one that really stood out. And I made it, the very next day. It may have been it’s visual appeal, the authors excitement herself or the positive feedback from others who had made it, claiming it was the most amazing vegan cheese they’d ever had and it even fooled omnivores. Either way, I was in.
It is, incredible. It tastes like feta cheese memories. It is pure plant goodness. It is natural and delicious. I can eat it easily, unlike it’s commercially made counterparts. It is versatile. It is tangy, salty, creamy. Just like feta, just without the bursting udders.
It was so easy, I didn’t have cheesecloth or muslin so simply wrapped in 3 layers of strong kiitchen roll then a tea towel. I’ve also made this and reduced the oil from 3 to 1 tablespoon and plan to have a go added oil free.
For my mums birthday I used some of the feta to make baked cabbage parcels (recipe follows), I stirred it into pasta where it melted into a gorgeous cream, I spread it on to toast, I crumbled into Greek salads, onto pizzas, on crackers, in sandwiches.
I make it often, and I love it.
Caraway Vegetable and Almond Feta Stuffed Cabbage Parcels: Serves 4
1 tsp olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
400g tin plum or cherry tomatoes
1 bunch, about 30g fresh parsley (20g for filling, 10g for sauce)
Salt and pepper
1 head green cabbage
1 tsp olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 medium carrot (peeled if not organic), finely cubed
150g mushrooms, finely chopped
1 tsp caraway seeds
125g almond feta
- Start by making the sauce. Heat the oil over a low-medium heat and add the onion. Saute for about five minutes until starting to soften then add the garlic. After 30 seconds of stirring add in the tomatoes, seasoning and the chopped stalks of 10g of the fresh parsley. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer and leave to slowly cook and thicken, stirring occasionally whilst you prepare the cabbage and filling.
- Place a large pan of water on to boil. Snap of 8 large outer leaves of the cabbage and add to the boiling water. Boil for 3 minutes until tender then remove and set aside to drain.
- Preheat the oven to 200’c/400’f.
- Heat the oil over a low-medium heat then saute the onion and carrot for about 5-10 minutes until softened. Add the garlic and mushrooms and increase the heat to medium, stirring the vegetables for a further 5 minutes until the mushrooms are softened and their water starting to evaporate, stir in the caraway seeds, chopped remaining parsley stalks and the shredded remaining cabbage. Season then cover the pan and leave for about 5 minutes until the cabbage has wilted, remove the lid and let any remaining juices evaporate almost fully.
- Take off the heat and stir through the feta. and the chopped parsley leaves. Taste for seasoning.
- Take the sauce off the heat and stir through the parsley and adjust seasoning.
- Spread sauce into the base of a medium ovenproof casserole dish. Cut the tough stalk from the leaves, add in about 2 tbsp of the filling per leaf and wrap up like a parcel. Place seam side down on top of the sauce. You may have filling left over which is delicious stirred into pasta or mashed potatoes or as a filling for puff pastry hand pies.
- Bake for 20 minutes until piping hot. Serve with rice, potatoes or crusty bread.
High in dietary fiber
Very high in vitamin A
Very high in vitamin B6
Leftover Cabbage Parcel and Creamy Sundried Tomato Pasta Bake: Serves 4
Cook 400g pasta in boiling water with a teaspoon of vegetable stock paste or salt according to package instructions until al dente, about 10 minutes. Add 150g broccoli florets 5 minutes before the pasta will be finished cooking. Drain.
Preheat the oven to 200’c/400’f.
Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a medium pan over the lowest heat and add 1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced or crushed and cook for about 5 minutes until the garlic is sweet and fragrant. Add in 3 sundried tomatoes from a jar in oil or soaked if dried and chopped leftover cabbage parcels (I used three) and any leftover sauce. Saute for about 3 minutes then add in a 400g tin of tomatoes and 200ml soya cream. Season to taste.
Bring to a low simmer and cook for 5 minutes until well amalgamated and slightly thickened. Stir through the drained pasta and broccoli then add to a baking dish. Sprinkle with 10g of sunflower seeds and bake for 20 minutes until the top is golden.
Low in saturated fat
High in thiamin
Very high in vitamin B6
High in vitamin C