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French cheese, but not as you know it

With more people seeking non-dairy options for the fridge or dining table, vegan ‘cheese’ is on the rise. Jane Hanks reports

In a country known for its cheeses, it might seem sacrilegious to produce a vegan alternative with no dairy products, but there are young companies in France producing new vegetal based creations which cannot keep up with the demand for their products and which are planning to expand by moving to bigger premises.

Though many of these products are packaged and designed to be eaten in a similar way to dairy cheese, a recent case from the EU Court of Justice ruled that traditional dairy terms such as milk, cheese, cream, butter or yoghurt cannot be used in purely plant-based products.

It was decided that German company TofuTown could no longer name its plant-based products Veggie Cheese or Soyatoo Tofu Butter. There are some exceptions: coconut and almond milk and peanut butter are still allowed.

However, a quick scan of the supermarket shelves where this type of product is beginning to appear shows they are being sold to look like a cheese alternative. At my local Biocoop in Sarlat, I found Vegeese, packaged as cheddar look alike slices made principally from coconut oil and Risella “which can be eaten like Mozzarella”, with rice as its main ingredient.

At Leclerc, I found two feta-looking packages made mostly from coconut oil, one labelled ‘Mozzarella flavour’ and the second ‘Goat’. There was also a packet labelled ‘Vegan Organic Grated, Flavour Cheddar’, again with coconut oil as its main ingredient. I tested them out on my family, who were not very impressed as the cheeses tend not to have much taste and a strange dense texture.

However, there are artisanal makers who are producing new vegetal foods which are winning prizes and they cannot keep up with demand.

One, La Petite Fraw at Clermont-Ferrand, wants to get away from any comparisons with cheese, even though it is based in the heart of the Auvergne, famous for its traditional cheeses.

It was set up two years ago and in its small premises, with eight employees, it makes 10,000 Fraws a month. It won this year’s Development Prize in the National Competition for Organic Agri-Food Industry Creations.

Its organic, non-dairy ‘Fraws’ are made from cashew nuts and flavoured with different spices, herbs and flavours to produce a range of sixteen different products; thirteen are sold in artisanal and traditional boxes and three have a smooth texture and are sold in jars.

Native Mezin, responsible for marketing says that they are a new type of food:

“We have noticed at tastings that everyone has their own subjective view of our project. What we want is to mark our Fraws as vegetal products with their own properties. People are happy to try something new they have never tasted before.”

The founder, Caroline Poinas, began making them because she wanted to create a new product for the market that was both good to eat and healthy and she discovered there was a demand for them:

“They are not just for vegans and vegetarians,” says Mrs Mezin. “Plenty of people are curious about them, taste them and then are happy to buy them to make a change from their routine, even if they eat meat and dairy products. It is also great for people with a lactose intolerance.”

The process is quite simple, she says: “The cashew nuts are put in a mixer with water and a special bacteria, similar to that used in yoghurts, to make it ferment together with the chosen flavours. It is then left in moulds overnight in a fairly warm place and then stored in fridges for a few days when it is ready to be sold.

“We have winter and summer Fraws. The winter ones tend to be spicier and the summer ones have ingredients like basil and dried tomato. We do not wish to make this kind of product secretive and are keen to encourage people to make this healthy food at home. There are plenty of recipes on the internet and one way of making it is to use cashew nuts, water and lemon juice as the fermenting agent.”

Fraws are not cheap at around €7.50 for 120g, but Mrs Mezin says they are healthy, ecological, ethical and hand-made: “All our ingredients are organic. Our cashew nuts are bought in Africa, but we have chosen our source with care.

“Many sold in Europe are picked and grown in Africa and then sent to Asia to be shelled, which is not ecological or fair to the growers so we make sure ours come direct from Africa. The recipes are simple with no hidden ingredients and because it is not cooked all the ingredients keep their full vitamin content.”

Fraws can be eaten in a variety of different ways. With bread, but also diced in a salad, mixed with water to make a sauce and served on pasta, baked on potatoes in the oven and spread over pizzas.

It can be bought on the internet at their site or in specialist organic shops. The company with its team of young enthusiastic workers hopes to expand into bigger premises by the end of this year.


Vegan products with added values

Act on Eat was launched in September 2017 in Nanterre, Hauts-de-Seine and won the Creation award in the National Competition for Organic Agri-Food Industry Creations for its Tomm’Pousse range of vegan products.

For now, the company has just one employee and produces four different products from cashew nuts or soya. Two are like feta, made from soya; one is flavoured with herbs and another with olives and two are like Camembert; made from cashew nuts, CamemVert Nature and CamemVert à la Sauge, flavoured with sage.

The company was set up by Emmanuel Joubert who had previously worked in marketing in a big multinational, but decided to turn his back on that world to live in one more in keeping with his own values. He has called his company Act on Eat because he says we should all be changing our eating habits by cutting down on the amounts of animal products we consume, which is why for him, making a non-dairy cheese equivalent makes sense:

“There are huge problems created by consuming too much animal protein, for example de-forestation of the Amazon, to make way for intensive farming as well as major health issues,” says Mr Joubert. “I wanted to create something which was like a cheese, and which could be a bridge between the traditional and the innovative. A new product you can serve on a classic cheese board.”

He says he uses very similar techniques to those used in a dairy including fermentation and then a maturing period of several weeks: “Our CamemVert has many similarities with a classic camembert and it can be eaten in the same way. I do not know anyone who has not liked it.”

He says he does not want people to stop eating cheese, but to add an alternative to their menus. “More and more people are becoming interested in vegan products as awareness grows about the ecological consequences of eating huge amounts of animal products. Many people buy it out of curiosity as well, to see what it is like.”

He did not want to say how many cheeses he makes every day but said it was impossible for them to make enough. “We are still very new and our difficulty is to grow fast enough. I do not regret my decision to change jobs. This is much more intense, more lows, but also more highs.”

His products can be bought in the Ile-de-France region and in specialist delicatessens in Provence and  major cities, such as Rennes, Rouen and Bordeaux. Details on their website

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