How far would you go in search of cheese? For sisters Rachel and Charlotte Stevens, it was a three-hour round trip across London almost every weekend.
“You have to go all the way to East London and if you live in Balham, you end up spending two or three hours on a Saturday, picking up cheddar,” Charlotte says.
Charlotte can’t eat lactose and Rachel is vegan, so getting their cheese fix wasn’t as simple as grabbing a block of Stilton from the local Tesco. It involved scouring vegan markets and specialist shops—and a lot of trips on the Overground.
“We just ended up travelling very far or making special orders for certain plant-based alternatives,” she remembers.
Tired of embarking on cross-city missions just to find something to grate over pasta, the sisters decided to take matters into their own hands. Earlier this month, they opened the UK’s first plant-based cheesemonger.
La Fauxmagerie, located in Brixton Market, South London, looks every inch the traditional cheesemonger. The wooden shop front is painted moss green, and a set of old-fashioned weighing scales and wicker picnic baskets stacked with wheels of cheese are arranged in the window. Inside, the counter is filled with soft cheeses in artful ramekins, crumbly farmstead rounds, packets of squeaky Greek-style cheeses, and a particularly impressive wheel studded with cranberries. The difference is that everything stocked at La Fauxmagerie—from the myriad of cheeses in the counter to the shelves stacked with preserves and crackers—is entirely vegan.
I arrive on a sunny Friday morning before opening time, and Charlotte greets me and quickly dons an apron that matches the shop front colours. Rachel is out attending to other business but her boyfriend Joe is installed dutifully behind the counter, preparing blocks of cheese for today’s customers.
I ask Charlotte to talk me through some of their best-selling products.
“Well, it’s hard to say what’s our best-selling,” she laughs. The shop, after all, has only been open for a week. “What we’ve found is that things like the wheels, they just look beautiful,” she points to the cheese with the proud dried fruit crown, “and the Tyne Chease has attractive ramekins, but we also have a company called The Naturally Vegan Food Company. Their packaging doesn’t necessarily shout out as much as the wheels do, but as soon as we opened one for a sample, I actually doubled our order. They went in three hours!”
Clearly, the sisters weren’t the only ones with cravings for vegan cheese and the ritual of visiting a dedicated cheese shop. La Fauxmagerie gained thousands of Instagram followers before even opening its doors, and Charlotte estimates that they had 230 customers over the opening weekend.
“One guy came in yesterday and said, ‘I heard about you from an American newspaper.’ One guy said that he came down from Wolverhampton, he was in London and popped in from central. One person came from Morden, which is like an hour and a half on the train. She left with a giant pile of cheese.”
Despite their love of cheese, neither Charlotte nor Rachel have ever worked in food before. Originally from Wales, Rachel was a merchandiser for Marks and Spencer and Charlotte is a data scientist—and self-confessed bad cook.
“I’m a terrible cook so it’s really important to me that I can just grab things and eat them. I occasionally cook with things, but pasta and alternative Parmesan is really as far as I will go. That was our mission here, to get those everyday products, as well as really special products that you can put on a cheeseboard.”
Rachel’s cooking skills, Charlotte says, are far superior.
“And she’s a cheese fiend,” she adds, Joe nodding solemnly in the background. “An absolute cheese fiend. She would come home before she was vegan and eat cheese—just a block of cheese—and I would get jealous because I can’t do that.”
The sisters may have little in the way of professional food experience but their venture into vegan cheese is well timed. The past few years have seen huge developments in the production of vegan meat substitutes, with products like the Impossible Burger replicating flesh to an alarmingly accurate degree, but plant-based cheeses are still pretty bad.
“You can’t go to the supermarket at the moment and get a plant-based cheese board and not be embarrassed by it,” Charlotte says.
Perhaps because of the work that needs to be done—and, of course, the increasing number of people choosing to follow vegan diets—plant-based cheese is a growing market, predicted to be worth just under $4 billion by 2024, according to Forbes. By putting in regular orders with small-scale vegan cheese producers, La Fauxmagerie hopes to give them the financial security needed to innovate and develop new products.
“The cashew cheeses are amazing and creamy and the best consistency for a cheese board cheese, but they’re really soft. We’re looking to get harder cashews but to get that, you have to age the cheese for at least a month,” Charlotte explains. “Some of our suppliers are like if, ‘If I age something for a month and then no one buys it for the next few weeks, I’ve wasted it.’ I’ve already said I will buy them, so we’re waiting on the aged cheddar to come in a month.”
She beams and continues: “We haven’t even seen what we can get because this hasn’t been done before, so I’m really excited.”
Charlotte is similarly excited about the products in the counter today, giving me a sample of The Naturally Vegan Food Company’s “Cheeze Ball,” a velvety, umami-laden soft cheese made with almonds and tofu, and a slice of the giant cake of blue cheese made by East London cheesemaker Kinda Co. The mottled blue texture of a traditional dairy cheese has been replicated with spirulina.
“This arrived yesterday, it isn’t selling anywhere else,” Charlotte says.
Of course, in 2019, no high-profile vegan launch would be complete without a minor controversy. Three days after La Fauxmagerie’s opening, The Telegraph reported that trade association Dairy UK would be asking the sisters to stop using the word “cheese” when advertising their products. “It concerns us that consumers are being misled with the use of dairy terms like cheese by the plant-based sector,” a spokesperson told the newspaper.
Many other news outlets picked up the story of a vegan cheesemonger versus the British dairy industry, and the Stevens soon found themselves at the centre of a media storm. They say that they weren’t approached for comment by The Telegraph before the story ran, but posted a statement on Instagram in response shortly afterwards, pointing out that “the word ‘cheese’ originates from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘kwat’ which means to ferment or sour.” Today, Charlotte tells me they intend to continue using the “C” word.
“Do we want the plant-based industry—which is growing in a way other industries aren’t at the moment—and interest from a consumer perspective is also growing, so do we want to dampen that growth so that we can help an industry that is declining?” she says. “It doesn’t make any sense to me from a consumer perspective, or from a business perspective.”
It may seem strange for Dairy UK to become so riled over a small vegan shop in Brixton but as the popularity of non-dairy products grows, the dairy industry is pushed to question its future—something MUNCHIES writer Ruby Lott-Lavigna discovered when she spoke to dairy farmers last year.
Whether the La Fauxmagerie calls its stock “cheese,” “cheeze,” or “nut-based dairy substitute product” doesn’t seem to matter much to its customers. During the short time I’m in the shop, people knock on the door demanding to know when it opens, and a photographer turns up from a news agency. Consumers are hungry for plant-based cheese—whatever we may choose to call it—and La Fauxmagerie is only too happy to provide.
“It would be fantastic if everyone was vegan and able to be vegan but I think when you say the word ‘vegan,’ it kind of scares people,” Charlotte says, “whereas if 50 percent of people pick up a non-dairy cheese instead of a cheese option, that for us is success—just to move the needle a little.”