Vegans want cheese. Or at least that's the impression Richard Ptacnik got in recent years cooking at Sydney Italian fine-diner Otto. Following a rise in vegan requests at the Woolloomooloo restaurant, Ptacnik had been on a mission to find a good vegan cheesemaker. In Sprout & Kernel he feels like he's ticked the box. Their smooth, tangy cashew cream cheese is now found inside the beetroot ravioli on his popular vegan menu, almost unnoticeably replacing goat's curd, while the company's original cashew cheese is used to finish the mushroom risotto.
From its base in Lewisham in suburban Sydney, Sprout & Kernel produces a range of dairy-free cheeses from macadamia nuts grown in Lismore and cashew nuts imported from Vietnam and India. Soaked nut pastes are cultured with rejuvelac - a natural probiotic harvested from sprouted buckwheat and other grains - giving the cheeses their distinct tang. They're then aged in fridges to develop their texture and flavour.
Husband and wife team Ben Wallace and Maria Ballesteros were long-time customers and fans of the business before they bought it in February 2015. Now, alongside their growing retail range, they produce specialty vegan cheeses for restaurants in Sydney, notably the cheeses for Otto and The Temperance Society in Summer Hill among them.
They also do a plain cashew nut cheese designed to have with crackers and fruit, crumble over lasagne or fry like haloumi. There's also an aged cashew cheese which certainly looks the part, with a drier texture and richer, darker taste than the unaged version; it's also less sweet. The macadamia cheese, meanwhile, is milder and more buttery, mixed with a little garlic and onion which gives it a slight French onion dip taste, but not unpleasantly so.
If you're a real-cheese die-hard, the cashew flavour may be tough to overcome, and the pasty texture and tang take some getting used to. But, if it's a dairy-free alternative you're looking for, you may have struck nut-cultured gold.
"You can't really compare them if you've spent your whole life eating normal cheese," says Ptacnik. "Gruyère is Gruyère - you can't replicate it from the point of view of a non-vegan person. But if you're vegan, this is really, really nice." How does Ballesteros like to use it herself? Tossed through pasta to create a creamy sauce, crumbled over salad or "just in a Vegemite sandwich" she says. "I incorporate it into everything."