Vegetarian Cheese 101

As a vegetarian, do you ever find yourself stumped by the sheer amount of additives that are derived from animals? There's an ingredient in cheese known as 'rennet' and when you hear about it for the first time, it sounds rather innocent.


When the packaging lists "rennet" by itself, there's almost no chance of it being vegetarian-friendly and you would do well to avoid eating it if you're a vegetarian for moral reasons. This is why.

Animal Rennet:  comes from the lining from the fourth stomach of  unweaned offspring as young as two days old. Calf rennet is used in cow's milk cheese, kid rennet used for goats cheese and so on. They are often labeled as 'Animal Rennet', 'Rennet', or even 'Enzymes'. There are two methods in which rennet is prepared for use in cheese-making.
  • Traditional Method: The stomach is cleaned, dried and sliced before being steeped for several days in a solution to lower the pH level. The solution is filtered and then the liquid left behind is used to coagulate milk. 
  • Modern Method: The stomach is deep frozen, milled and then added to an enzyme-extracting solution. The rennet is soon activated by an acid and then neutralised. Once neutralised, the rennet is filterised several times to reach its maximum potency. This produces a higher yield than the traditional method.
Vegetarian Rennet: Luckily, we can get vegetarian cheese without compromising on quality, flavour and the lives of young animals. There are a few versions of vegetarian rennet and each one has their own pros and cons. Like so:
  • Vegetable rennet: comes from plants with coagulating properties such as the thistle, nettle, ground ivy, or mallow. Another form of vegetable rennet is phytic acid from unfermented soybeans. Cheese made from this shares many qualities to non-vegetarian cheese, but it can be unpredictable for use in traditional recipes.
  • Microbial rennet: made from certain moulds, produced in a fermenter and then concentrated and purified before being used in the cheese-making process. This produces a bitter taste especially in aged cheese. 
  • FPC (Fermentation-produced Chymosin): Natural chymosin is the key component of animal rennet, whereas FPC is obtained by extracting rennet-producing genes from the animal's DNA and then inserted into the DNA of certain bacteria, fungi or yeasts. After fermentation, the microorganisms are killed, leaving behind the chymosin. This produces cheese that are practically identical to those made with animal rennet, with the added benefit of producing higher and more reliable yields. It is theoretically a GM product and often labelled as Microbial Rennet.
So now that we've covered the basics of rennet in the cheese-making process, I'm going to show you that you definitely CAN get fancy, high quality cheese and all you need to do is look at the packaging carefully, ask the staff at delis and cheesemongers, and do your research on the brands you're interested in. I've noticed that a lot of artisan cheesemakers use vegetarian rennet, so look into that too!

Now, let's get to the fun part- cheese platters!

In this one I put together a mixture of goat and cow cheese, ranging from soft to hard and mild to strong.

Yarra Valley Cheese's Fresh Goats Cheese
$10.99 for 300g at Costco, $7.99 for 120g at Woolworths
Fresh and creamy yet crumbly, with a lemony tang that makes you want more. It is great on freshly baked sourdough, drizzled with some olive oil, topped with sundried tomatoes and sprinkled with Tasmanian Bush Dust. It goes with anything and this is one of my favourite everyday cheese.

Castello's Creamy Blue
150g for $7.60 at Coles
This is one SUPER creamy blue cheese. I'm talking mature brie creamy! It is a mild blue, so it's great as a introductory blue for those who haven't tried blue cheese. It is lovely in pasta dishes with some rocket and kalamata olives. It is slightly tarty as you savour it, and works beautifully with pear slices.

Fromagerie Guilloteau's Saint Angel
$11.50 for 175g at Queen Victoria Market
When I got this, it was very ripe. So ripe that it was deliciously oozing out onto the plate and I just could not wait to sink my teeth into this one. It is VERY worth the price tag. This triple cream cheese has a fruity and mushroomy taste thanks to the aging, so it would work perfectly with some walnuts. This can be sourced internationally.

Coles Finest, Gippsland Farmhouse Vintage Cheddar
$8.79 for 150g at Coles
So sharp it leaves the desired bitter aftertaste behind as you savour this cheese. Richly flavoured with so much crumbliness, it melts in my mouth. Not the best vintage cheese I've tried, but it is definitely a contender. Eat with some relish, or even better, some quince paste to make your tastebuds sing!

Paolo Sartori's Extra-Aged Goat 
100g for $4.50 at Queen Victoria Market
I saved this bad boy for last, because boy, did I love it! Aged for a minimum of 10 months, this cheese packed a punch with its salty-sweet profile that matched perfectly with the caramelised almonds I bought at the market. It is super crumbly and leaves a bitter aftertaste, comparable to that of a vintage cheddar. Not for the faint-hearted though. If you like your cheese strong, go for it!

Recommended accompaniments:
St Dalfour's Four Fruits Spread,
Lesley Black's Country Relish,
Tasmanian Bush Dust,
Caramelised Almonds,
Quince Paste,
and Pear slices

This concludes the cheese platter section. Now, I said in my last post that I found a suitable replacement for Parmesan cheese, and I found that in Sartori's Extra-Aged Goat. It was almost indistinguishable and considering how it is almost impossible to find vegetarian Parmesan cheese, I was super excited to find this one - it is going straight on my spaghetti bolognaise.

The cheese listed in this aren't exactly cheap, but when you consider how often one has a cheese platter to pig out on, and the possibility of getting them while on sale or in smaller portions, then it kinda works out. The platter was served for three people, and the cheese was enough for three or four platters. So in short, I should have gone with smaller portions but I am a greedy person and just wanted to hoard the leftovers...

Now, I am on the search for a vegetarian Manchego (Queen Victoria Market proved to be fruitless) so if any of you readers know of one that I can try out, do send me a line! I am licking my lips in anticipation.


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