It's 5 AM and I'm in an Uber headed for Stoke Newington in East London. ABBA are playing on the radio and through the window, I see sleepy commuters gathering at bus stops as the sun rises above the buildings. Only the promise of cheese could get me up this early.
And not just any cheese, but Casheese—an entirely vegan cream cheese made from cashews and fresh herbs.
Lydia Davidson, inventor of the dairy-free fromage, greets me at the bright green front door of the Food For All health food shop. It's in the shop's basement that she and her small team of cheesemakers are producing their cashew cheese, selling jars at health food shops, cafes, and markets across the UK.
Heading down the stairs into the cosy workspace, I'm introduced to Jenny, who is carefully spooning a gloopy, dough-like mixture into containers.
"Oh no, don't photograph that!" laughs Davidson.
The Casheese team moved production to Stoke Newington earlier this month, but Davidson began developing the dairy-free cream cheese in 2014.
"I'd tried cashew nut cheese in a raw food restaurant in London quite a few years ago and just couldn't believe how amazing it tasted—I couldn't link the cheese with the nut," she says. "So I started to look into the process of how it's made."
The team behind Casheese is small—just four people, including an intern—and something of a labour of love for 31-year-old Davidson, who balances it with her day job as a teacher.
"I've always loved cooking and been interested in ingredients or innovative foods," she says.
Despite being vegan for the last 16 years, Davidson was eager to make Casheese appealing to those who eat dairy.
"What's really important to me is trying to provide something that's plant-based and tastes good," she explains. "It doesn't necessarily need to be seen as an alternative but it's just making it easier for people that want to make those choices."
It must of worked. Davidson tells me that the majority of customers aren't vegan, buying Casheese for its taste. The trend for #CleanEating and rising popularity of plant-based diets among young, social media-savvy Millennials may also have helped boost the profile of nut-based cheese alternatives.
When it came to developing the recipe for Casheese, Davidson found herself in unknown territory.
"It took a while for people to go, 'Oh actually, that's not that bad,'" she remembers. "Looking at certain recipes online, nothing was quite working in practice. It took a lot of experimentation in terms of using cultures, which I've not had the experience of using before. Fermentation was a whole new area of learning too and then it was the case of getting the right consistency and flavouring. There was a lot of trial and error."
Recipe decided, Davidson focused on choosing her ingredients from organic and Fair Trade producers, something she hoped would mark Casheese apart from other soy-based vegan cheeses made with preservatives and additives.
"I was really experimenting with whether it was going to be cashew or almond—looking at Brazils also," she explains. "You can make cheese from any nut or seeds, and all of them have got very different flavour profiles and consistencies. I found the seed butters a bit too bitter. Cashew and almond definitely work the best, so it was always going to be those two nuts."
The process starts with the cashews being soaked, which eliminates enzyme inhibitors and makes the nuts easier to digest. Next, they're blended to a nut butter consistency and the fermentation process can begin.
"We then add a culture and it ferments or ripens," explains Davidson. "It's a similar process to making actual cheese, you just start it with cashews instead of dairy."
The team then adds herbs and spices. Casheese currently comes in four flavours: paprika, chive, basil, and French herb. This morning's batch is chive.
"One of the challenges was getting that desirable consistency without adding any thickeners, preservatives, or additives," adds Davidson. "This means that the shelf life isn't months and months long, but does mean it's very fresh."
Flavours added, the finished cheese is piped into jars—each one individually labelled.
"It's an involved process, everything is handmade," says Davidson.
As the smell of fresh chive starts to fill the room, my stomach quietly grumbles. Luckily, Davidson hands me a Casheese jar of my own, telling me recipe ideas like stirring through pasta or adding dollops to soup.
I go home feeling inspired, but end up eating my Casheese with a teaspoon from the jar.