When I first became vegan, one of the things I wondered was what I would serve in place of the cheeseboard at dinner parties. That was, of course, after my initial "How will I ever do without cheese?" concern - the thing that every vegetarian says, and that you find out isn't that difficult once you've been vegan for a couple of weeks.
Now, I'm all for showing people that being vegan doesn't mean giving up anything - it actually means gaining so much, as you end up exploring many new flavours and foods (it is a real myth that vegans have a limited diet - they probably have a far more varied diet than most meat-eaters, certainly from what I remember when I ate animal produce).
And importantly, I like to show people that there are many ways to recreate compassionate versions of traditional food customs, they don't have to go 'without'. Besides, tradition is no excuse for sticking with cruelty, perpetuating suffering and maintaining archaic beliefs towards nonhuman animals, let's move things on a bit in the 21st century, already!
So this is a fabulous vegan cheeseboard that will have your guests "mmmm-ing" as much as any dairy one. Not to mention that it is about a hundred times healthier (note my very scientific estimate there) than a selection of cheeses made from animal milk, and it is also totally cholesterol-free.
It looks impressive doesn't it? Yet it's easy to put together.
If you want to try this yourself, definitely make your own vegan cheese rather than buy the commercial vegan versions. I have tried a few of the commercial ones that are available in the UK, including Sheese, Tesco 'Free From' and Vegusto, and while I liked a couple of the Vegusto ones, and the Tesco 'Free From' Soya Mild is okay for jacket potatos and mixing into things, I wouldn't actually use any of them on a cheeseboard, especially if I was serving it to non-vegans.
The cheeses here though (which are not my own recipes, I have to sadly say) have been eaten by many non-vegans, who absolutely love them. Some really (you can guess what's coming...) couldn't believe the cheeses were vegan, and I would have no hesitation in putting this board out for non-vegans, knowing that the feedback would be positive.
There are lots of vegan cheese recipes available on the internet, but looking at some of the ingredients, many are clearly a lot better than others. The ones I've used here have been tried and tested a few times, with several people tasting and liking them (very much!).
I've used two basic recipes. The cheese in the middle of my board is a vegan cashew cheese, and I discovered the recipe after my friend bought me Ann Gentry's Vegan Family Meals cookbook. The recipe for this cheese is the one she uses in her restaurants, so you know it is going to be good. I was bowled over when I first tried it - the answer to my vegan cheese prayers had arrived.
I'm glad to say, Ann has published this vegan cashew cheese recipe on her website, so have a look in order to make it yourself. From the amount here, if you use small pudding bowls as your mould you could make around three cheeses. I used large, over-sized ramekins as my moulds.
NB: I actually use agar powder, not flakes, and approximately one fifth the recipe stipulation (you need less powder than flakes).
Just a couple of tips for making this one - take care when you are boiling up the agar and soya milk mixture. It boils over the pan very quickly, and then you lose half of the agar with the milk! So keep a very careful eye on the pan as it reaches boiling point.
Also, lightly grease your moulds before pouring the hot 'cheese sauce' in. When it comes to using the cheeses, once they are completely chilled, you can tap them out of their moulds onto a surface before serving. If you want to freeze, remove from the moulds after cooling the cheeses (overnight is good) and place them them in freezer bags.
The other two cheeses are from the same recipe - Baked Almond Feta from Maple Spice, but one is just a herb variation, and I doubled up on the recipe in order to make the herb one.
This is just so simple to make, and if you look at the ingredients, you can see there are no weird and whacky ones to include. It is basically ground almonds, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and water. Yes, that's it! And the results are incredible - a salty, crumbly and spreadable 'cheese', that is eerily reminiscent of feta.
You can use this Baked Almond Feta in all kinds of dishes, but recreating a vegan version of a Greek feta salad would be very doable, and it makes a perfect addition to the cheeseboard with crackers, as you can see from my main photograph.
You need cheesecloth (muslin) to prepare this recipe which is cheap to buy on Amazon - although the first time I made the feta, I used clean, new dishcloths!
As I say, I doubled up on the recipe for this cheeseboard. After blending the ingredients as stated in the instructions, I took out half and spooned that into my prepared cloth and bowl, and then in the remaining half that was still in the blender, I added about 1-2 tablespoons of Herbes de Provence (you can use whatever you prefer - dill would be nice in this, or maybe rosemary).
You will need to make this cheese up the night before so it can do the soaking and draining that it needs to do, and then bake it the next morning. In fact - it's probably best to make both the types of cheese the night before, as the cashew one will need a good few hours to set and chill properly anyhow.
When you are ready to put your cheeseboard together - you may as well go all out to impress after the effort you've already gone to, and have some nice accompaniments!
Serve the cheeses with a good quality chutney (be open-minded - I found a papaya and lime pickle that works beautifully with this). Don't forget a full bunch of grapes, and maybe some melon slices too. And a dish of olives tends to work well, also.
As for the what to lay it on - I salvaged a piece of slate after I had a natural slate floor put into my kitchen, so I sealed it and now use that! If you can get hold of some slate (I've seen people offering unused bits on Freegle - try putting a request on there!) then it works wonders for a rustic look. A 'butcher's block' wooden chopping board would look good too (mine is salvaged from my kitchen worktops!).
Finally - don't forget some tasty crackers. If you're not making your own, take care to check ingredients as they sometimes contain milk or dairy cheese. And then - enjoy with a glass of good wine!