I've always said that I adopting a vegetarian lifestyle wouldn't be that difficult for me -- but adopting a vegan lifestyle would be impossible, because I cannot live without cheese. I've seen vegan cheese at the supermarket but they all look like rubbery sliced processed cheese. In other words, they don't look like cheese at all.
So when Whole Foods Market invited me to try samples of the new nut milk cheeses they've begun to carry, why would I even bother? Because Whole Foods is stocking these cheeses in their cheese department. You know, the counter inside the store where they carry all their good cheese. Where they carry all their imported cheese. Their locally-made cheese. Their gourmet cheese. Their artisanal cheese.
And believe me, Kite Hill cheeses are as artisanal as they come. In fact, Kite Hill cheese is the first non-dairy cheese to be featured exclusively in Whole Foods' cheese department. They use only four ingredients: nut milk, cultures, enzymes and salt. Their nut milk is from almond farms in the San Joaquin Valley and is custom blended for each cheese. They use traditional French cheese-making equipment and mold their cheeses by hand.
The result is soft cheese that's not just for vegans. It's cheese for anyone who loves cheese. Whole Foods sent me three varieties of Kite Hill cheeses, and after tasting them I definitely agree they deserve their place with the gourmet cheeses. I can't say I'm tempted to give up milk-based cheese and switch entirely to vegan cheese, but Kite Hill has definitely expanded my cheese palate and given me a whole new set of cheeses to serve and enjoy. Like most gourmet soft cheeses, they have a unique and distinct taste that "safe" eaters may wrinkle their nose at -- but it's a taste that adventurous eaters and cheese lovers generally enjoy!
White Alder looks, feels and tastes the most like "real" (i.e. milk-based) cheese. It's also the strongest of the three, with a pungent aroma that reminds me of Taleggio or very stinky Brie. If your tastes run towards mild cheddar, I would leave this one for last and gradually work your way up to it. I can easily imagine children looking at the brownish, wrinkled rind and saying, Ewwww. Fortunately my kids will try practically any cheese on earth, and this one was no different, but they didn't really like the taste. To be honest, it wasn't my favorite either, but I can understand why people would like it. Oh well, to each his own.
I liked the Costanoa cheese much, much better. It's a semi soft dusted with a piquant blend of paprika and fennel pollen. The cheese itself is mild, like the Casuccio (which I'll be talking about after this one), but the paprika and fennel give it a very pungent, almost sour, taste.
Doesn't the red crust make it look beautiful?
This cheese is fairly firm; the texture is similar to extra-firm tofu. It tastes wonderful with tortilla chips or on crackers drizzled with honey!
The Casuccio is my favorite of the trio. The texture might seem strange to anyone not used to vegan cheese -- the texture is very similar to tofu (in fact, when you slice it up, it looks just like tofu). One of my kids thought it was a strange kind of tofu. He didn't really care for it, but my other two couldn't get enough of it.
We used the last of our Cassucio in a mixed green salad with dried cranberries and avocado. It was mild enough so it didn't overpower any of the other flavors, but combined with the avocado it made the salad such a wonderful tanginess/saltiness/creaminess that the salad didn't need any dressing at all, just a squirt of lemon juice and some ground pepper. It was delicious!!
There's a fourth variety: Truffle, Dill & Chive Cassucio, which I haven't tried -- yet. Every time I stop by the Whole Foods cheese department it seems to be out of stock, which is always a good sign! I love truffle oil... I love dill & chive... I love Kite Hill Cassucio.... how could I not love this? I'll keep checking, and as soon as I get my hands on this variety I'll update this post!
One final note: We ate all the cheese cold. I haven't tried melting any of these cheeses or using them in my cooking, so I have no idea what would happen to them.
Kite Hill artisanal vegan cheeses are sold in the cheese section of Whole Foods. They cost about $13 or $14 for a 6-oz. round. They are definitely available in the Northern California region; if you're not from NorCal, check with your local Whole Foods.... and sit tight if they aren't. If you are vegan, they are worth the wait.
Disclosure: I received samples of Kite Hill cheeses for review. The views and opinions expressed here are my own.