-- Non-dairy cheese has had an uphill climb for years in shedding the stigma that it’s just not as good as dairy cheese and that it’s only for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. But in recent years, many companies are taking on the challenge of making high quality non-dairy cheese head-on, using nuts as its magic ingredient.
“I think that there was a sort of a zeitgeist with vegan cheese, where suddenly at a certain point, everyone woke up and said, 'why don't we make cheese out of nuts?'” said Michael Schwarz, founder of Treeline Cheese, one of the companies at the forefront of the non-dairy cheese movement.
Schwarz’s mission is to not only make a non-dairy cheese that can compete with dairy cheese, but to help save a world that he believes is being destroyed by modern day agriculture.
“I just thought that the world is facing tremendous environmental problems, mass cruelty to animals, human health problems, and getting people onto plant-based diets is really one of the ways we can address these problems,” Schwarz said. “So I started studying the issue and started experimenting with making cheese out of nuts.”
Growing up in South Africa, Schwarz inherited his activist personality from his father, Harry Schwarz, who was a law school classmate of Nelson Mandela and was very dedicated to the fight against apartheid.
“Both my father and mother instilled in me and my two brothers that we have to do things to bring about change,” Schwarz said. “If you're not making the change and you're not finding solutions then you are part of the problem. So, that really is what drives me and it's what drove me to start the company and start making non-dairy cheese.”
Moving to the U.S. in the early 1980s, Schwarz practiced intellectual property law for about 25 years before finally taking the plunge into an entrepreneurial life. He went to the library, scoured the Internet, talked to a few cheese makers and spent six months in his kitchen figuring out the secret formula to a non-dairy cheese that would wow the cheese world.
“The first time did not work out at all,” Schwarz said. “A friend of mine came over to taste the cheese and I could see he was trying to be nice, but his mouth was just doing its own thing. Eventually I was like, ‘you hate this don't you?’ And he goes, ‘yeah, it sucks.’ So, we've come a long way since then."
After all that research and experimenting, Schwarz decided that cashews would be the main ingredient in his unique cheese formula.
“Cashew nuts are pretty amazing in that they have a very high fat content and they also don't have a very strong flavor of their own,” Schwarz said. “And for that reason they are a really good base to start out with because they're very neutral, and that's really why I chose cashew nuts.”
As a former intellectual property lawyer, Schwarz keeps his recipe and the equipment he uses to make his nut cheese very hush-hush, describing his method only in broad strokes.
“What we do is take the nuts and then do things to the nuts that are similar to what is done to dairy cheese,” Schwarz said. “So we ferment it and it undergoes kind of a chemical transformation from the nuts to the cheese, and that's what really makes it cheese in my opinion.”
Schwarz’s ultimate dream is to find non-dairy cheese sections in supermarkets all across the country.
“I hope you'd be able to go to just about any corner of America and beyond and find our product and people will not even say it's non-dairy, because it'll just be a part of their lives,” Schwarz said.