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How to create a vegetarian cheeseboard

How to create a vegetarian cheeseboard

by Tom Shingler Thursday, December 17, 2015

Think all cheeses are suitable for vegetarians? Think again. Some of the UK's most popular varieties are strictly off-limits. Read our guide to find out which to avoid and discover some great alternatives.

Tom Shingler is the features editor at Great British Chefs.

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.

Cheddar
Watch out for traditional West Country cheddars – they may contain animal rennet
Cheeseboard
Try to aim for four or five different cheeses alongside chutneys, pickles, crackers and fresh fruit and veg for a balanced board

Hard

 
 
Winslade is a British interpretation of Vacherin Mont d’Or that’s absolutely fantastic, and is made in Hampshire.

Tom Shingler

A decent cheddar has to make an appearance at some point over the Christmas period, and it’s worth spending a little more to get a properly matured one with a little history behind it. West Country Farmhouse Cheddars are PDO-protected, which means they have to be made to a strict recipe in certain counties of England. While the rules don’t specify a particular rennet to use, a lot of the older dairies (such as Keen’s, Montgomery’s and Quickes) stick to their own traditional recipes, which always include animal rennet. More modern or mass-produced cheddars will be vegetarian, but if you’re buying a cloth-bound or cave-aged variety from your cheesemonger, do ask – they will know right away.

While they aren’t classic Christmas cheeses, Parmesan and Grana Padano are often used in cooking throughout the year. Both are guaranteed to contain animal rennet, as they are made to traditional recipes, so can’t be served to vegetarians. Instead, try Bookham’s Sussex Charmer, a cheese made here in the UK which works as a great alternative, especially when grated over dishes. There are also vegetarian ‘Italian-style hard cheeses’ in the supermarkets.

Another two hard cheeses to watch out for are Gruyere and Manchego, which can be made with or without animal rennet depending on the cheesemaker’s preference. And stay away from Mimolette, which is matured using cheese mites – tiny insects which remain in the rind when sold.

Soft

 

If you’re planning to use ricotta, mascarpone or mozzarella in your cooking, don’t worry – nearly all soft, very fresh cheeses like these are made without rennet of any kind. However, it’s very likely you’ll be including a brie or a camembert on the actual cheeseboard. Again, it’s important to check the packaging – for example, Brie de Meaux will always contain animal rennet, and most French camembert also contains it. But there are plenty of British cheesemakers creating modern vegetarian varieties that are just as good (if not better) than their European counterparts. Give Godminster Brie or Lubborn Somerset Camembert a go; two cheeses that make the most of the South West’s fantastic milk.

Vacherin Mont d’Or is another popular European cheese that’s not vegetarian, and many of the creamier, softer varieties throughout Europe are generally made with animal rennet. Winslade is a British interpretation of Vacherin Mont d’Or that’s absolutely fantastic, and is made in Hampshire.

The fantastically named Stinking Bishop is one of many ‘washed-rind’ cheeses, which are doused with a liquid (usually alcoholic) during maturation. They’re known for giving off an incredibly strong aroma (which is nice for some, unpleasant for others) and containing a mild, oozing centre with a floral, flavourful rind. Unfortunately, Stinking Bishop isn’t suitable for vegetarians, but Wales-based creamery Caws Cenarth make a fantastic alternative called Golden Cenarth without animal rennet.

 
Continental
As a rule, cheeses made to very traditional recipes aren't suitable for vegetarians
Blue cheese
Continental blue cheeses tend to be off-limits, too

Blue

 
 

That most festive of blue cheeses, Stilton, is thankfully almost always vegetarian – there are a few dairies that produce a ‘traditional rennet’ version, but they are clearly marked. The same doesn’t apply for popular European blues, however – many traditional Roqueforts aren’t vegetarian and all Gorgonzola contains animal rennet. Try Italian Dolcelatte for a veggie alternative to both, which has the same mild, creamy properties, or if you’re after an all-British board, Cashel Blue, Dorset Blue Vinny and Beauvale are all multi-award-winning cheeses made here in the UK.

Goat

Goat’s milk cheeses always look the most interesting on a board, especially when they’re rolled in ash, shaped into logs or covered in an aged, mottled rind. However, because they are so varied and different to one another, it’s impossible to know whether they’re vegetarian or not without asking someone in the know. As a rule, however, the classic French goat’s cheeses are generally made with animal rennet, while the more modern British ones (such as Ticklemore, Golden Cross and Rachel) are vegetarian.

 
 

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