About a decade ago, most vegan cheese came in the form of commercially prepared blocks that tasted and looked like salty wax. I remember trying new brands that popped up a few times a year but, after taking the first bite, they only yielded disappointment and soft thuds into my wastebasket. Thankfully, the evolution of vegan cheese has come a long way over the last few years, particularly with the emergence of artisan vegan cheese.
This type of cheese is typically made by using nut milks and sometimes the pulp as a base, then acidifying and adding enzymes, cultures and salt—which applies the same methods and similar techniques that traditional dairy cheese making does. It’s a process that takes time, skill and precision and those who produce it are all passionate about their craft. I love learning about those who so enthusiastically create these products, what drives them as well as what goes on behind the scenes.
My most recent discovery is Avellana Creamery in Eugene, Oregon, run by creators and owners Sue and Marika. They were kind enough to share some samples of their hazelnut milk-based cheese with me, and what they’re doing is fantastic: rich and creamy, Avellana vegan cheese is truly unique in texture and taste. Supremely lush and subtly accented with spices ranging from savory to spicy, Avellana Boursault-style cheese offers flavors to delight all palates, including flavors like Italian Herb, Berbere, Ras el hanout and Smoked Paprika.
I wanted to know more about how Avellana Creamery was created, so I virtually sat down with Marika and Sue to chat about their journey, process and vision for the future. Here’s what we discussed!
How did Avellana Creamery begin?
Sue: Marika and I decided to go vegan about a year ago after we adopted a very special rescue Chihuahua, who changed our views of animals and their purpose on the Earth. Being a cheese addict and a food perfectionist, I really wanted to find a vegan cheese that would be as enjoyable as dairy cheese.
Marika: I remember driving all around Portland (which is two hours away from us), buying every vegan cheese we could get our hands on. Although there are some really delicious vegan cheeses available, we never quite found what we were looking for. So Sue made it her mission to make her own vegan cheese.
What kind of experience did you have with cheese making at that time?
Sue: Before we went vegan, I’d made dairy goat cheese, so I just decided that I’d give vegan cheese making a try. I came across the book Artisan Vegan Cheese by Miyoko Schinner and followed many of her recipes. After learning some of her techniques, I developed my own really simple cheese, with simple ingredients already on my shelf.
Marika: Because they are grown locally, we decided that we’d use organic hazelnuts as our base, which is super important to us because we want to strengthen our economy and support our community. I remember buying five pounds of hazelnuts at a time and just started experimenting from there. We liked using them so much that we decided to name our company Avellana, which is Latin for hazelnut.
Sue: Choosing a Latin name for our product was also a nod in the direction of the Renaissance, which is a period in history that both Marika and I are drawn to. The Renaissance was a time when new ideas and ways of thinking about the world were born and spread across the world. People began to question the infallibility of those in power and began to use their own ideas and ideals to create a different paradigm. Our hope is that the time is near for another Renaissance, and that more and more people will begin to awaken to the effects our food choices have on animals and on our environment, and a vote for a new and evolved way of thinking that includes treating animals with love and respect.
What sets your vegan cheese apart from other brands currently out there?
Sue: Our cheese is made from locally grown, organic hazelnuts and just a few other ingredients, all of which can be found in any kitchen. Also, many nut-based vegan cheeses are made out of ground and flavored nut paste. We make our hazelnuts into milk by grinding them up and straining out all the fiber, adding enzymes to make curd, which is an old and traditional cheese making method. We culture only the richest, most flavorful part of the nut: the protein and the fat. This makes our cheese fantastically delicious, unique and ridiculously creamy.
Can you describe the different flavors you’ll initially and potentially offer, and why you chose them?
Marika: We will be offering a ricotta and nacho cheese sauce, as well as a sliceable Boursault-like cheese. Our traditional flavors are spiced with smoked paprika, curry, Italian herb and a spicy Ethiopian Berbere. We also have a cocoa nib that has a hint of sweetness to it.
We have also developed a hazelnut hummus from our hazelnut pulp that rivals all traditional hummus. It’s tangy and garlicky with a little kick to finish it off. It a great spread/dip for those who would like an alternative to bean spreads and dips.
Did anything in particular influence your flavor choices?
Sue: About three years ago, I read a book by Harold McGee called Keys to Good Cooking. As I read, I began to understand the complexity of flavors and textures in food. Prior to this time, I mixed stuff up into a casserole dish and tossed it in the oven to bake, unaware of the subtler aspects of making foods with complex and changing flavors. Since reading Keys to Good Cooking, I’ve been more aware of the different flavors (sweet, savory, sour, bitter and umami) that play off each other in fantastic foods and I’ve practiced different ways to enhance that effect. I chose the spices for our cheeses based on what I learned from McGee.
How can people order your vegan cheese?
Marika: For now the only way to get some of our cheeses is through donating to our Indiegogo campaign. The goal of our campaign is to help us get licensed and into a commercial kitchen with the production grade appliances and certified space necessary to make our cheeses for retail sale. There is quite a large upfront cost in starting any business, especially a food business.
Starting at a $25 donation, our perks include shipping cheese right to your door. After we are finished with fulfilling our Indiegogo perks we will begin to sell our cheeses first in here in Eugene, then Portland and beyond as we grow.
Follow Avellana Creamery on Facebook for news and updates.