Carrying a wooden board stacked high with thick wedges, beautiful truckles and oozing wheels of different cheeses is enough to make anyone’s mouth water. It’s one of the best things about Christmas, and now that the UK has such a rich cheesemaking industry, we’ve never had so much choice when putting one together (let alone all the different varieties from further afield). But it’s important to know which ones are vegetarian and which ones aren’t – a lot of people assume cheese is made from nothing more than milk, salt and a starter culture. But rennet – an enzyme which coagulates the milk – is also needed to solidify the mixture, before it’s pressed and aged.
Traditionally rennet comes from the lining of a calf’s intestine, but vegetarian rennet is also available, extracted from things like fungi, fig leaves and melons. Cheesemakers tend to use one or the other depending on their recipe and the way it affects the final cheese – one rennet isn’t better than the other, and the same cheese can be made with both kinds with only minor differences. But many recipes require animal rennet as they must be made to a traditional recipe, such as those protected under EU law.
As a rule, a balanced cheeseboard contains a hard, soft, blue and goat’s or sheep’s milk cheese, possibly with a flavoured or smoked one thrown in for good measure. While there are some cheeses that will always be off limits for vegetarians, always check the label or ask your cheesemonger about the rennet if you want to be sure. A lot of traditional cheeses from the continent contain animal rennet, but there are plenty of alternatives being made by artisans in the UK that are just as good.