By Alexis Baran
What is cheese, anyways? The cultured snack favourite can be buttery, sweet, herbal, earthy, pungent, bitter, footy, even barnyardy. It’s one of the few foods that people will gladly eat even (or especially) when visibly laced with thick mold and it is a staple of modern dining. For centuries it’s been made using animal milk – but who’s to say milk is the only thing that can create a fantastic cheese?
The assumption that animal milk must be the base for cheese is a notion that Chef Karen McAthy, the founder of Blue Heron Cheese, has been challenging. She’s aiming to change how consumers, as well as the food regulators, think about these wheels of flavour, all from her store and creamery on Vancouver’s Main Street.
Blue Heron Creamery opened in Vancouver in early 2018 to block-long line-ups and a sold-out shop. The nut-based cheeses are so popular that Blue Heron is currently only open one day a week, for five hours. During that time customers often line up for their turn in the tiny storefront, and by the time they’re closed they can pretty much turn off the refrigerator – everything is gone.
When I sat down with McAthy and asked about her cheeses in comparison to “real” cheese, I clearly mis-spoke. “What is real cheese anyways,” questioned McAthy with a challenging grin, “a lot of cheese makers wouldn’t call a lot of what we buy at the grocery store ‘real cheese’.” Peruse the cheese aisle with that in mind and you’ll see what she means. Refrigerators are full of processed spreadable “cheeses” and other products that are made to taste like cheese but have never been fermented or cultured.
“I wanted to make real, non-dairy cheese, and I didn’t love the recipes I found. There was no troubleshooting advice, so I started looking into the methodology of how dairy cheese was made and applied that to cheese made with other proteins.”
Dairy cheese is made by culturing the animal fats and proteins found in milk. To make the non-dairy cheese at Blue Heron, McAthy and her small team cultures fats and proteins found in other places, such as coconut milk, walnuts, cashews, almonds and other nuts. The result looks and feels the same as dairy cheese, with its own variety of tastes – some being close in taste to mild diary cheeses such as brie. Others have a flavour all their own, such as Cormorant, a black ash-covered cashew and coconut milk cheese with a sharp taste, sweet coconut notes, and a spreadable chevre-like texture or Shore, a smooth and mild cashew cheese made with caraway and whole pink peppercorn.
“If you look at the name of cheeses – some are named for the culture that creates it, not the milk. Camembert, for example, is from the penicillium camemberti culture. I can use that same culture to make a camembert with cashews and coconut” says McAthy. “I’m also using the same culture in a cambazola I’m working on.”
Is there a flavour difference between Blue Heron’s cheese and dairy cheese? Of course, but there’s also flavour differences between the myriad of varieties of dairy cheese as well. Whether you’re looking to replace dairy cheese or you’re interested in cultivating some new flavours into your platters and recipes, plant-based cheese is real, and it’s delicious.