Plant Cheese, Plants Please

From sun to soil to plant to nut to harvest to table. With all of life, there is a respective order. A system with roots, both symbolic and real. We start with sunlight and work our way through the elements of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Life begins with the seed, water and some bacteria. We can trace most of life back to this primal state.

Much of the work that I do stems from a need, both within me and beyond me, to create reverence around the natural world: the earth, nature, plants, trees. What I create is plant-based food. I’ve been consuming a vegetarian diet for the better part of 12 years. With spurts of eating grass-fed meat in between when I was exploring a paleo diet or healing my gut with bone broth. My perspective on food has not stemmed from trends or even the environmental impact of consuming meat. It started out as a teenager, with the very basic understanding that I felt better eating vegetables and fruits. It started out, fundamentally, by listening to my body and cultivating a keen interest in nutrition.

Image by Nathan Legiehn
Image by Kelly Brown

Fast forward to today, joining my learnings in the science-based fields of nutrition, biology, physiology with the eastern roots of Ayurveda, environmental and metaphysical studies, I have a newfound perspective which influences my approach to food and health. It’s the type of stuff you can’t unlearn, and feel a responsibility to share and carry and live out. I marry this with my natural inclination for aesthetics and my imaginative and curious mind.

I work with like-minded humans from around the world and together we’re creating a web of change, weaving our way through capitalism and big business along the way.

And I truly believe that any work stimulated by a desire to create change—regardless of how big or small you feel in the greater scheme—is making a difference, any step in that new direction is a worthy one.

Lauren Wilson of Timberlost is one of my most prized friendships, salt of the earth kind of woman. She and I work together regularly and she has created beautiful watercolour paintings inspired by the plant cheeses I create. I digress with poetry but let’s return to the topic: plant cheese.

As with anything, there are the people that get it. They are eager to try the cheese, they understand the movement, want to be part of it and see the value in adopting a more plant-forward diet, both for health and the environment. And then there are others, many of older generations, who share quite honestly that they prefer dairy cheese. I appreciate their honesty.

Illustration by Lauren Wilson

I’ve struggled to find the right words for these cheeses. “Plant-cheese” sounds a bit more appetizing than “nut cheese” (right?) but at the end of the day, these cheeses are not cheeses per se. I do not intend them to replace the ancient practice and have great respect for the artisans who create natural cheese, fellow Canadian David Asher to name one of many.

The plant cheeses I make can be described as, a fermented and probiotic rich spread made from tree nuts that resembles and reminds us of the texture and taste of cheese.

Semantics aside, plant cheeses provide an excellent alternative for vegans, raw foodists, those who don’t eat dairy or simply those who want to start adopting a more plant-forward diet. I’m not trying to replace a category here (okay maybe I am), it’s an option for a different way of living and eating.

Last fall I moved to LA to attend a plant-based culinary school. I had heard about plant cheeses, in fact shortly before my move out west I tried Veronica’s delicious cheese from Dr. Cow, her shop in Brooklyn New York. Veronica and her husband are OG plant-cheese artisans and have been making it for over 15 years. I didn’t realize that shortly after trying her cheeses, I’d fall in love with making them in California. Or that people in Toronto, many meat-eaters, would become interested in the dairy alternative.

The health benefits of plant cheeses are many. I suggest finding cheeses that are organic and raw, meaning that the ingredients are not heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. This preserves the enzymes and nutrients so that you are consuming a living food.

In my experience, eating raw foods is a powerful way to obtain more energy, to experience improved digestion, clear skin and overall vitality.

Though this story is a celebration of plants, I feel obliged to at least mention the negative health consequences and mass degradation of dairy by big food business. I will bite my tongue or perhaps save that for another essay, one more focused on health and wellness.

But what I will leave you with is this: We are at a point in history where scientists and environmentalists are begging for our attention, directing us to see the need for a new way forward. We’re being asked to course correct. Our food system is an integral part of that required change. While the plant-based food I make is created with whimsy and a romance for nature, it’s roots grow deeper. Plant-based food is optimal for health and our earth’s sustainability. It really is as simple as that.

Tonya Papanikolov is a culinary nutritionist and chef from Toronto, Canada. Check out her gorgeous and informative website THE WELL WOMAN and her INSTAGRAM feed. Yum!

Illustrations by Lauren Wilson and images by Nathan Legiehn and Kelly Brown

Illustration by Lauren Wilson
Image of Tonya by Nathan Legiehn
Image by Nathan Legiehn