The butchers and cheesemongers behind the plant-based revolution

Some of the world’s most innovative plant-based and vegan products are made by ex-butchers and cheesemongers. We take a closer look

Under shiny glass bell jars on the counter, mould-ripened camembert sits beside slabs of orange-hued cheddar. The east London shop has all the hallmarks of a traditional cheesemonger, from its walls lined with refrigerators to its lightly pungent scent. But there’s one major difference. Look closer at the labels and the camembert is spelt ‘Shamembert’; the blue-veined gorgonzola is labelled ‘Veganzola’. La Fauxmagerie is Europe’s first vegan cheesemonger, and no dairy has gone into the making of any of its products.

Veganism has gone mainstream in Western countries over the last few years, as proven by the surging popularity of plant-based meat replacements like The Impossible Burger and alternative milks made from soya, oat and coconut. While these are becoming increasingly accessible in the mass market, a new wave of artisan makers are on the rise, appropriating traditionally meat- and dairy-based industries for a more environmentally conscious age.

At kebab shop Vöner in Berlin – the city with the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey – traditional-style doner ‘meat’ is made with wheat protein and served with classic pita bread and tahini. Plant-based ‘butcher’ shop No Bones sells protein-based ‘cuts’ in Sao Paolo, while Australia’s first vegan charcuterie shop, Suzy Spoon’s, opened in Sydney in November. The trend has inevitably swept the United States, with plant-based butchers thriving in MinnesotaCalifornia and North Carolina, to name a few.

What’s unusual is that many of the most successful of these innovators have roots in dairy or meat farming. One of La Fauxmagerie’s initial suppliers, Sumear Safdar-Robins, worked as a dairy cheesemaker near Bristol, UK, before deciding to apply the same traditional cheese-making skills to produce dairy-free cheese.

Amsterdam-based vegan cheesemaker Bran Vanstone – who blends nuts and tofu into versions of gorgonzola, ricotta and parmesan – spent every school holiday as a child working on his grandparents’ dairy farm in Devon, south-west England. It was that in-depth knowledge of the industry and its products – rather than a backlash against the dairy industry itself – that was the base his vegan cheese business, Willicroft, which he launched in 2018.

Cheesed off

But there’s been backlash from the other side. Though largely small-batch and independent, many plant-based producers come under fire from the farming industries to which they’re providing alternatives. La Fauxmagerie’s launch in 2018 courted controversy when dairy farmers sent the vegan cheesemonger a letter, claiming that using the word ‘cheese’ for dairy-free products went against EU legislation. But their attack didn’t dissuade co-owner Charlotte Stevens.

“We consider our products cheese,” she says. “Cheese is fermented fat, and our cheeses are made with the same probiotic and bacterial cultures used to make dairy cheese. It’s just that the fat we use comes from nuts and soybeans. But the white exterior of the Shamembert is exactly the same mould that grows on a camembert, aged in the same cave environment.”

Thanks to the shared process, the Shamembert’s flavour and texture is impressively close to that of its dairy inspiration, particularly when baked. Its almond and shea butter base, infused with truffle oil and begging to be dunked into with crusty bread, melts into the same shiny goo as a Normandy camembert.

Far from undermining the work of traditional farmers or converting everybody to veganism, Stevens is simply keen to provide a viable vegan alternative for cheese-loving flexitarians who are concerned about the environmental impact of agriculture.

“No one wants to attack farmers, but we can’t really escape the fact that animal agriculture is a big contributor to soil erosion and climate change,” she says. “When I became a vegan due to dairy intolerance, I didn’t feel like I could have a dinner party and put a supermarket vegan cheese on a cheeseboard. But with these artisan products, I can. If we can get 20% of every cheeseboard in the country to have a vegan option, we’ve done our job.”

Netherlands-based Jaap Korteweg has even bolder ambitions. A ninth-generation cattle farmer, he decided to become a vegetarian when he witnessed the mass culling of livestock during the swine fever and mad cow disease epidemics of the late 90s. He opened a butcher’s shop in The Hague as The Vegetarian Butcher, followed by a pop-up restaurant called De Vleesh Lobby (‘The Meat Lobby’), before creating a supermarket-ready range of vegetarian ‘meats’ made in a factory. The line was recently acquired by Unilever. His masterplan? To become the world’s biggest butcher – meat and plant-based combined.

“Factory farming is not sustainable,” he says. “We use the animals as machines. Welfare isn’t important and we eat too much meat for our health. The only reason we eat meat is because we like it.” With the help of chefs, scientists and other farming professionals, he set out to create realistic meat substitutes to rival the real thing. His What the Cluck ‘chicken’ pieces, Unbelievaballs ‘meatballs’ and vegetarian Holy Cow Burgers were all showcased at a vegetarian pop-up at nose-to-tail butcher’s shop Hill & Szrok, in east London last autumn. It wasn’t the only meat-centric business to try out plant proteins in the capital: Smithfield Market, the UK’s largest meat market, began selling vegan burgers shortly after, for the first time in its 800-year history.

Looking to the future

Despite some pushback from the old guard of meat production, all converts to plant-based alternatives agree that the current global culture of intensive farming can’t go on. Countless studies back up their argument: recent research by the journal Science shows that avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact. Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%, yet currently, 86% of all land mammals are either livestock or humans. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of mass extinction of wildlife globally.

“Plant-based meat is seven times more sustainable than beef in terms of land, energy use and water,” claims Korteweg. So what’s next? Stevens believes that EU subsidies for meat and dairy farming will eventually have to come to an end, making the cost of meat skyrocket. As a consequence, plant-based alternatives will come into focus and become more financially accessible.

“Technology wise, vegan artisan products are currently being made by a couple of people doing experiments on a small-batch basis,” she says. “With investment, this would easily scale up. People worry about vegan products because the Amazon is being deforested for soy farms as well as cattle farms. But 80% of that soy goes towards animal feed. Now, soy is grown in the Netherlands and the first UK farm has just started to grow it.” It’s a sign of things to come: experts predict that by 2040, most ‘meat’ will either be lab-grown or plant-based, rather than produced by animals.

Ever ahead of the curve, Korteweg’s got a madcap idea up his sleeve. “I have a plan to make a cow from stainless steel, with four stomachs,” he grins. “I’ll make milk and cheese from grass – without using cows, but using the same process. I hope that within five years it’ll be on the market.”

If anything can be learnt from the ninth-generation farmer, it’s that farming – and humanity – is ever-adaptable. Seeking out these veggie innovators on your travels, whether in Berlin, Sydney or Minneapolis, is a great way to see how food culture is evolving across the globe – and to have a taste of things to come.

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