In an unassuming small strip of shops on a busy West Hollywood corner sits Vromage, Los Angeles’ first vegan cheese shop.
About the size of a small ice cream shop, bare walls highlight the one display case humbly filled with selections like Goat Cheese with Ash and Truffle Brie. The hum of refrigerators from the small kitchen where the cheeses are made serves as the choir to these heavenly creations.
The brainchild of Youssef Fakhouri, Vromage is a play on “fromage,” the French word for its beloved national treasure: cheese. But what would the French think of Fakhouri’s cheeses made from macadamia nuts, almonds and cashews?
The cheeses taste, for lack of a better word, like cheese. But as a longtime vegan, I can’t say I really remember what dairy cheese tastes like. A few I liked as a child: cheddar, swiss, a bit of mozzarella on a pizza, but I was never a big cheese fan back then (my Kraft Macaroni ‘n’ Cheese addiction is another story). The stinky stuff made me feel nauseated, and with vegan cheese over the last two decades tasting mostly like rubber, I avoided it without feeling deprived.
But then, something happened. Vegan cheese started popping up everywhere, and not just the so-called “meltable” Daiya shreds.
Fakhouri may have the only vegan cheese shop in town, but Los Angeles is crawling with artisanal vegan cheese options. Nearby his location, the vegan restaurant Crossroads serves Kite Hill vegan cheeses. The Silver Lake farmers market just down the street from my house boasts two different vegan cheese makers; one is there at the Tuesday market (Blöde Kuh's Sir Racha is totally addictive) and one on Saturday (Nuteese). A mile up the road, Mohawk Bend, a gorgeous beer bar and restaurant converted from an old movie theater, makes its own cashew cheese for incredibly delicious vegan pizzas. I just tried a new invention there: a potato goat cheese on a vegan pesto pizza that was amazing. My 17-month-old daughter ate half of the pizza! And two other vegan restaurants in the neighborhood also make their own versions of vegan cheeses for quesadillas, sandwiches and pizzas. Vegan cheese is today's veggie burger--every self-respecting vegan restaurant is making a proprietary recipe.
Across the country in Brooklyn, though, is where the artisanal vegan cheese revolution started with the brilliant cheesemakers at Dr. Cow. The small company now has its own vegan cheese shop selling its signature brand of vegan cheeses that come with a tang and bite that would rival the best artisanal goat or cow cheeses. (You can actually purchase some Dr. Cow products at Erewhon in Los Angeles).
Dr. Cow was one of the first, if not the very first brand to begin fermenting nuts and seeds for vegan cheeses. Unlike the slew of oily processed vegan cheese options that have spots on many a supermarket and Whole Foods shelves, fermented nut cheeses taste more like real cheese because as some of the producers would argue, they are real cheeses, just made from nut milks instead of cow, goat or sheep milk.
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Vromage’s brie has the hard rind and creamy center that Fakhouri says dairy brie lovers give the thumbs up to. His cheeses pass muster because they taste, look, smell and have the mouthfeel of other cheeses. This isn’t just important to vegans who miss “real” cheese. It’s actually probably more important to the omnivore who still eats dairy products.
Livestock farming dairy cows is incredibly intensive on the land. Dairy cows also contribute an alarming amount of methane into the air, compounding our global warming issues. There are water and air quality problems from the animal waste that can create serious health issues for the nearby communities. Add to that the infections and complications many dairy cows are subjected to in factory farm settings and it can ruin your appetite. And hopefully I'm not the first one to alert you to this reality: Veal calves are the male calfs born to the constantly impregnated dairy cows.
“Now, finally, there is a cheese that's as good for you as it is for the animals,” Vromage boasts on its website. Finally.
Don’t live in Los Angeles? While you can’t (yet) buy Vromage in supermarkets, do a little Googling and you may be surprised to find artisanal vegan cheeses being produced in your town.
Let us know about your favorite vegan cheeses in the comments.
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger or scarfing down cheese at Vromage in West Hollywood
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Images: Jill Ettinger