New york

Riverdel Vegan Cheese

by Miykaelah Sinclair

Riverdel opens the door to a world of possibility and unexplored flavors and textures still waiting to be discovered, and proves that vegan cheeses are, in fact, delicious in their own right. 

Stepping out of the Brooklyn Museum, Eastern Parkway subway stop, I can’t help but think what a beautiful day it is.  For a moment, I forget I’m in the US and feel transported back to walking on one of the ramblas, or “wide avenues,” of Barcelona.  I take a left on Washington Avenue and walk two blocks past a Key Food Market, a locksmith, workmen, and there, at the end of the second block, on the corner of Saint Johns Place and Washington Avenue, I arrive at Riverdel.

If you weren’t paying attention, you might just wander into this shop thinking it was like any other cheese shop and ask for some feta cheese or burrata, perhaps. This actually happens more often than you might expect Michaela Grob, the owner founder of Riverdel, shares with me. 

As you enter the shop, two framed pieces of paper on the wall to your right call out for your attention. One of the frames holds a piece of paper containing, in large letters, a definition of the word “cheese” and traces its etymology:

“Cheese” from the Latin word “caseus”

“Caseus” derived from the Proto-Indo-European word “kwat”:

“To ferment, become sour.”

So in case you were planning on asking Michaela how exactly she can call herself a cheesemaker when, as far as most of us know, cheese is clearly a dairy product, the answer is right there for you when you walk in. According to this establishment, the defining characteristic of cheese is actually the fermentation process, and therefore, while it may be made with a non-dairy base, their products can still be considered cheese.

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After exchanging pleasantries and laughing about how we have the same name, Michaela and I sit out in front of the shop to talk vegan cheese and her fine food establishment. Michaela has been a vegan for over 5 years.  We joke about how when you tell your friends or people you meet that you’re vegan, or have a particular diet —gluten free, vegetarian, etc.—people’s faces often fall and suddenly you’re no longer invited out to eat as much or over to dinner parties. Michaela reiterates to me that in making the decision to be vegan, she wasn’t suddenly declaring that she doesn’t want to enjoy a good meal ever again.  This was her way of being conscientious about what she eats and the effect it has on the earth.  She still very much enjoys good food and considers herself a “foodie” of sorts.

The vegan cheese scene has changed a lot in the past five years.  Sure, there were vegan cheeses you could melt or blocks of vegan cheese you could use in all sorts of cooking made by companies like Tofutti, but there weren't many fine, artisanal cheeses that people might want to enjoy on their own. Some of the first mainstream vegan cheeses produced were made by Tofutti and Daiya.  Then in 2012, Miyoko Schinner, a gourmet restaurateur and vegan food expert from the Bay Area in California published the book Artisan Vegan Cheese: From Everyday to Gourmet.  This book presented a significant departure in the understanding of the use and purpose of vegan cheese—it wasn’t just something to melt into sandwiches, but could in fact be appreciated as its own course or on its own in a meal. Initially, after choosing to be vegan, Michaela noticed that most places that were making vegan cheese at this level in the US were based on the West Coast, and she decided it was time to bring the movement east.

Whenever she’d travel for work or pleasure, Michaela would seek out vegan cheese options and, over time, her quest to find the best fine, artisanal vegan cheese developed into an idea for a fine food shop that focused on nondairy cheese, and carried many of the other things you might find at such a shop, including condiments, crackers and pastas. During the same time period, other notable vegan cheese ventures sprouted in New York, such as Dr. Cow in Williamsburg, Treeline Treenut Cheese in Kingston, and Cheezehound in the Catskill Mountains.

About a year ago, Michaela decided to take the leap and find out whether opening a fine foods shop specializing in artisanal vegan cheese was a viable option. She spent several months developing a business plan and researching whether there was actually a need or desire for a vegan fine food shop.  She scouted a location in her neighborhood, Prospect Heights, near a subway stop, and on a busy street where the rent wasn’t outrageous. In this way, rather than worrying about paying the rent, she could focus on more important things like selling the best artisanal vegan, nondairy options she could find. She discovered the place on Washington Avenue, and the rest is history.

So far the shop has been well received by the neighborhood, and its patrons—primarily vegans and people with dairy free diets—make the pilgrimage to her shop to stock up on products. When the unsuspecting, non-vegan shopper comes into her shop asking for feta or blue cheese, thinking Riverdel is a dairy cheese shop, often, these shoppers are open to trying the vegan cheeses Riverdel has to offer and will end up walking away with one or two vegan cheeses.

Riverdel offers a wide variety of vegan cheeses from all over the United States. Michaela shared with me a few vegan cheesemakers in Europe that she’s considering carrying, but primarily she focuses on domestic products.  Several of the vegan cheeses she carries are made in-house in Riverdel’s tiny kitchen. Intrigued, I asked Michaela to share with me the vegan cheesemaking process.

At Riverdel, whole raw cashews are ground in a food processor, and then aged with a special fermenting agent.  One of the vegan cheeses I sampled is made with beer and caraway seeds to create a unique flavor profile.  Most raw vegan cheeses are made with either cashew or macadamia nuts because of the bland flavor and high fat content of the nuts, which makes them a versatile base for a variety of cheeses.

Ultimately, Riverdel, along with other vegan cheesemakers, shows that there is a whole world of possibility and unexplored flavors and textures out there still waiting to be discovered and appreciated, whether you are choosing to eat vegan cheese for dietary reasons or because they are, in fact, delicious in their own right.