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Vegan cheese a winner for Gizzie Aussie

Just two months after restarting his fledgling vegan cheese business across the ditch in Gisborne, former Australian journalist Andrew McKenna is celebrating success at the inaugural Vegan Cheese Awards.

Treetop Foods was operating in Australia for 18 months before Andrew returned to Gisborne for a second time after finding the pull of the ocean too hard to resist.

“I started pretty much as a hobby but I was a bit nervous going back to Australia because there is not much work for journalists, so I thought I had to do something different.

“We lived inland in Victoria, well away from the sea, and we had liked being by the sea and our son was interested in doing a gap year, so it just fell into place.”

Working out of the Poverty Bay Bowling Club kitchen, Andrew produces between 50 and 60 cheeses a week.

Two of the company's six styles were this week named in the inaugural Vegan Cheese Awards.

Treetop's Pepper Kick won the Hard Cheese category and the company's Sundried Tomato and Garlic cheese was runner-up in the Soft Cheese section.

The cheeses are made out of macadamia, almonds and cashew nuts, which are blended into a paste with water and other ingredients.

“I wanted to use macadamias because they are an Australian nut and lo and behold when I got back here, it's the centre of macadamia growing in New Zealand.

“Generally, I mostly ferment them with (non-dairy) cultures as well.”

They are then left to ferment, which starts to break down the proteins and fats and adds flavour.

While vegan cheese was taking off, there was still some scepticism out there, Andrew said.

“It's the whole spectrum of reactions. People are totally baffled or they go ‘wow this is fantastic'.”

The products are already sold in selected Gisborne stores and at the Gisborne Farmers' Market, and Andrew is looking to establish an online sales platform.

Awards judges taste-tested more than 30 different New Zealand-made plant-based cheeses across nine categories.

Plants do not have cholesterol, so those keen to preserve their health as well as the environment, but love cheese, can finally eat their way safely into cheese heaven, awards spokeswoman Claire Insley said.

“Supermarkets know that vegan cheese is on the rise as they are seeing a 36 percent increase in plant-based foods.

“This is a huge win for the plant-based industry and the Vegan Society Aotearoa New Zealand is delighted to present the first award winners.

“It's clear that healthy, plant-based cheeses are ready to tackle the Kiwi palate.

“Our awards are showcasing the excellence in this niche, yet burgeoning market.

“These cheeses are healthy for you, healthy for our environment and kind to animals.

“When vegan cheese tastes this good, why settle for less?”

GOING NUTS OVER HIS CHEESE: Andrew McKenna with his award-winning vegan cheeses — Pepper Kick and Sundried Tomato and Garlic. The cheeses are made out of macadamia, almond and cashew nuts blended into a paste with water and other ingredients. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell