By Kurma Dasa
you read the fine print on packets of cheese when shopping? Maybe
not. But I do, and for strict vegetarians it also makes for essential
reading. Surely cheese is vegetarian, you ask? Why all the fuss?
There's a one-word answer — rennet.
Rennet is an essential ingredient in cheese making. It's an enzyme
that coagulates milk proteins, thus setting the curd. The first
in cheese making is the addition of a starter culture of Streptococci
and Lactobacilli. These bacteria ferment the lactose to lactic acid
and reduce the milk's pH to the proper range for the rennet to coagulate
the casein. Then the rennet
is added. The active enzyme in rennet, called rennin, is remarkably
efficient. In pure form, one part will coagulate 5 million parts
But what's all this got to do with vegetarian ethics? The answer
is that most cheese manufacturers use a rennet derived from the
fourth, or true stomach of a milk-fed calf. Every year, millions
of calves endure terribly inhumane factory farm conditions for their
short lives, before being executed in ghastly slaughterhouses for
their tender flesh.
As well as being a vegetarian I am also a Krishna devotee. In classic
Indian Vedic tradition, Krishna is also called Govinda and
Gopal (the sanskrit word go means cow) because He
is so fond of the cows. In fact he is a cowherd, and treats his
cows and calves as members of his family. Hence my eagerness to
check my cheese labels.
Now, unless you’ve decided to be a vegan and eschew all dairy
products, what’s a cheese-loving vegetarian to do? The good
news is that although calves' stomachs are the classic source of
rennet, there are alternatives. I once saw an old recipe for homemade
rennet made from an infusion of the herb lady's bedstraw, which
purportedly makes excellent cheese. The juices from the fig tree
and certain thistles have the same curdling effect.
But for those of us, myself included, who don't have time to make
their own cheese, there's an easier solution; and that brings us
back to the deli or supermarket shelf. A good number of cheeses
produced around the world now come with "non-animal rennet"
listed with the ingredients. That means the manufacturers have used
a herbal, microbial or synthetic rennet to make their cheese.
Not long ago I was given an invitation to attend a Cheese Show
at the Sheraton Hotel in Melbourne. As I went from table to table,
and spoke with the cheesemakers, I was amazed to discover hundreds
of varieties of cheese, including fresh unripened, "eye-types",
stretched curd types, through to cheddar-types and hard grating
cheeses. So, at least here in Australia, there’s a big range
of vegetarian cheese to choose from. And if you don’t mind
spending a little extra, there are some excellent imported non-animal
rennet cheeses, such as the famous Italian Grana Padano, a hard
grating cheese similar to Parmigiana.
If browsing through shelves of cheese is not your cup of whey,
and you live in Australia, then as an alternative, you can ring
up the Australian Dairy Corporation and ask them to send you a copy
of their free book entitled "The Australian Cheese Buyers Guide."
The manufacturers and agents details are all given, so you'll know
where to go to get the cheese of your choice.
If you live outside of Australia, find out if there is a dairy
regulatory board in your country and contact them. You may be pleasantly
Here’s a recipe for a succulent salad using creamy white
fresh mozzarella, my all-time favourite cheese.
Tomato, Basil and Fresh Mozzarella Salad (Insalata Caprese)
tasted this ultra-delicious combination of fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella
cheese, slices of ripe tomato, and fresh basil leaves for the first
time in Rome. A friend and I were browsing a grocery store when
a van pulled up and the driver raced in with a tray of buffalo mozzarella
cheese that was so fresh it was floating in still-warm whey. Needless
to say it was my most memorable cheese experience.
Do not even dream of substituting the hard yellow coloured cheese
that goes by the name mozzarella – it has to be the fresh
white stuff, or not at all. If you have no access to fresh mozzarella,
then use freshly pressed panir cheese instead. For the best results,
select the freshest cheese and tomatoes, aromatic fresh basil leaves,
and the best extra virgin olive oil you have.
250g buffalo milk mozzarella, or bocconcini, sliced into 0.5
a few fresh basil leaves, shredded for garnish
3 or 4 ripe, medium-sized tomatoes sliced into 0.5cm rounds
Coarsely ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
12-15 whole, large fresh basil leaves
Decoratively arrange the slices of cheese, whole basil leaves
and tomato slices in overlapping rings on a serving platter.
Sprinkle over the salt and the black pepper just before
serving, drizzle with the extra-virgin olive oil, and garnish with
the shredded basil leaves. That’s it!
From "Cooking with Kurma"
by Kurma Dasa
Want to see more recipes? Click here.
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