For many, cheese is a deal-breaker when it comes to making (or even considering) the leap into veganism. “Even more than bacon,” says Shannon Martinez, co-owner and chef of Melbourne’s wildly successful vegan eateries Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli. “Fuck bacon! Cheese is where it’s at.”
Just five years ago, options for non-dairy cheese were grim. Martinez describes one that “had the texture of putty” and “came in a log like dog food.” It was, she says, all that was available, once. But now, there’s vegan cheddar, fetta, mozzarella and more being made all over the world, with countries like Greece and Germany leading the charge. Martinez herself makes a vegan ricotta that’s impossible to differentiate from the real thing, and a vegan Roquefort that even the world’s best cheesemonger begrudgingly admitted was delicious.
Despite her sorcery in the kitchen, Martinez isn’t actually vegan. She fell into it by accident after repeated requests for vegan food during her time as chef at the East Brunswick Club. “I was being asked more and more often for vegan options and so I started looking into vegan food and created a small menu just so I could make my life easier,” she says.
“It went ape shit, and that’s when the penny dropped for me – there were so many vegans out there, and no one was cooking for them.”
Fifteen years on, Martinez’s Smith & Daughters has been named the best vegan restaurant in the world by Big Seven Media (“Technically third, but the first two on the list weren’t actually vegan,” she says), an acknowledgment which she says is a huge step in the right direction for vegan food. This changing perception of what vegan food can be, an increase in dietary intolerances, and the ready availability of vegan foods in large supermarket chains like Coles and Woolworths, who stock a range of vegan cheese among other animal-free products, are all contributing to a growing acceptance of vegan lifestyles, and helping those contemplating one to take the plunge.
The improvement in quality is having a huge impact, too. Fewer corners are being cut, and more effort is being taken to ensure a better finished product. Take Martinez’s Roquefort – she uses real Roquefort culture in her vegan version and ages it for 12 weeks to allow the blue mould to develop, resulting in a truly stinky, creamy cheese. One of her favourite producers is the Vegan Dairy (one half of who is the daughter of the couple who run Boatshed Cheese), who make a range of fresh vegan cheeses (think ashed chèvre and marinated boursin) as well as vegan butter, yoghurt and cream on the Mornington Peninsula.