Before I was vegan I ate a lot of cheese. In fact, it was one of my very favourite things...
You know that little description on your Twitter profile? Well mine had cheese listed as one of my ‘identifying features’, such was its importance in my life. Friends and family knew me as a cheese addict, an entire block of haloumi would frequently take centre stage at my dinner table, and I loved nothing more than going to our local cheese shop and trying before buying. In short, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
So what happens when a self-confessed ‘cheese-head’ goes vegan? Can life ever be considered fulfilling again? And, more importantly, “Do I miss it?”
I’m not exactly sure when my cheese addiction started, but I think it’s pretty safe to say it was after I went vegetarian. Up until that point I don’t recall cheese being so vital to me. At the age of 12 I announced to my family that I was never eating meat again because I thought eating an animal was “gross”. Not eating meat has always made sense to me: I loved animals and meat was (part of) the body of an animal. Plus, I’m not sure I ever really enjoyed it. One of my earliest memories is of refusing to swallow stewing steak at my Nana’s house by continuously chewing on the piece I already had in my mouth. I did this every time I was served one of her casseroles, and in the end they stopped spooning it onto my plate.
So I went veggie because I loved animals and eating them felt wrong, but at no point between the ages of 12 and 33 did I ever question dairy. I never wondered why we drank milk, or pondered on the production of cheese, or yearned to know anything about yogurt other than whether it was low in fat. I only bought free-range eggs, refused to buy products that contained palm oil, believed that I was a conscious consumer, and that was that.
So when I took part in Veganuary and discovered that my actions had been contributing to such an insane level of cruelty, i.e. the dairy industry, I was absolutely devastated. I felt like I’d been hoodwinked into taking part in something that I never would have knowingly done. And I believe this is when something very significant happened to me. I went off cheese.
Now I’m talking in hindsight right now, as I now have over two years of cheese-free experience backing me up. At the time I didn’t realise I had rejected cheese in such an absolute way. All I was doing was trying vegan for a month and finding out stuff as I went along. I was expecting to long for cheese, to crave it as I always had, and to battle with myself when I wanted to give in and just shove a wedge in my mouth. I was shocked when I discovered that cheese contains something (which I now know to be casein) that is totally addictive. And, like any addiction, a period of abstinence is required to break the habit. It was unplanned on part, but in going vegan for that month (January 2014) I gave myself the best head start for the rest of my life. I broke my cheese habit.
But because of my total and utter love of cheese I did do a few things that made breaking that habit a lot easier. I knew before I even started Veganuary that plant cheeses were not going to hit the spot. No ‘fake cheese’ was going to charm this stilton lover! So I approached my vegan month as I approach many things in life – as a challenge. As a personal challenge, because I can be very bloody minded when I set my sights on something. And as a culinary challenge, because I love to cook and was sick of making the same thing week in, week out. I was very much stuck in a vegetarian rut.
So for the first, and subsequent few months, I did not seek out a slice, a block or even a sneaky piece of plant cheese. Instead I looked for alternatives to it. I didn’t just change what I was eating, I changed the way I was eating. In a few instances, I made vegan versions of old favourites – like my roasted butternut, spinach and olive salad, where the masses of crumbled feta was replaced by toasted sunflower seeds (to this day, still one of my favourite ways to liven up a salad or pasta). But most of the time, I made other stuff. I cooked vegan food, not just vegan variations of the same old vegetarian food that I was used to eating. As fate would have it, I was given a wonderful cookbook when I left my job to join the Veganuary team: Isa Does It by Isa Chandra-Moskowitz. And it was here that I discovered the utter gloriousness of cashew cheese sauces! Where had they been all my life? Suddenly, I could create things that gave me such a cheesy hit, but with none of the feelings of guilt that my dairy-laden days were full of. (Eating without guilt is another topic I want to write about.) And what’s more, my husband loved them too. He had never shared my penchant for all things dripping with melty cheesiness, but suddenly we were eating creamy, hearty food that we both could enjoy.
As I delved further into Isa’s book, I discovered there were so many things out there to make that I’d never even known about. Tofu scrambles, seitan and gravy bowls, satay sauces and so many types of Mac and Cheese that I couldn’t decide on a favourite. I was making and eating such flavour-filled dishes that not once did I think that it needed anything else. It was a real time of revelation, and vegan cooking continues to excite and motivate me every day, more than two years on.
Of course, curiosity got the better of me after about six months, and I have now tried many store-bought plant cheeses. (After going without dairy cheese for so long the prospect of a cheese and pickle sandwich was fairly momentous!) I think that Violife is great with chutney or Marmite in toasties, and can be combined with Vegusto’s No-Moo Melty for a lovely pizza topping, and Bute Island’s creamy Sheese is perfect for baked spuds or bagels. Violife have also recently launched a parmesan-esque cheese which is scarily similar to its dairy counterpart, and grating it over a meal feels almost sentimental.
Interestingly though, I don’t eat this way very often. In fact, these sort of things are my ‘lazy cheats’, rather than the everyday foods they once were. I prefer avocados on my bagels, homemade hummus and ‘boldslaw’ on my potatoes, and I make my own melty pizza cheese out of potato and carrot (I kid you not!). Without dairy, my food has become so much more vibrant and more varied, and I genuinely don’t want to eat the way I did before. So back to my original question…
Do I miss it? And to that I answer (honestly, happily and without a shadow of a doubt), “No”.
This article was written for Vegan Food & Living Magazine.