Nut-based cheeses inspired by Mirko Parmigiani’s wish to share cheese with his lactose intolerant son
“I am Italian and my wife is French, so of course we both love cheese,” says the aptly-named Mirko Parmigiani. “Last year, our four-year-old son was tested as lactose intolerant. I have made fermented foods at home for years and had some experience of cheesemaking, so I decided to see if I could come up with a milk-free cheese that the whole family could enjoy together.”
The result was Palace Culture, a Crystal Palace-based business that uses nuts to create a range of cheeses that can be enjoyed by the lactose intolerant, vegans, and, it would seem, broad-minded continental cheese-lovers. “We use cashews or almonds as the main ingredient,” explains Mirko. “These are blended with water until they reach the consistency of a very thick milk, much thicker than the nut milks you will find in the shops. We have 90 per cent nuts to 10 per cent water, so we’re not diluting all the fats, proteins and sugars. We then add lactose-free cultures. We spent a lot of time looking into these cultures, finding some that are already used in the dairy cheese industry.”
“The process is very close to cheesemaking, in which fermentation and ageing are doing most of the work,” adds Mirko. All of his cheeses start from a base of either cashew or almond, which is initially left to ferment for 24 to 32 hours in a warm environment. “As it ferments, the milk expands and becomes creamier, and you get a curd-like consistency. It has a tangy taste with a definite umami flavour.” The only ingredients at this point are the nuts, water, cultures and some Cornish sea salt. In fact, Mirko chose almonds and cashews specifically because of their naturally high levels of sugar—sugar is important in the fermentation process, and he didn’t want his base to require any additional sugar.
A natural product
Other ingredients are sometimes added to make specific cheeses in Mirko’s range. For the semi-soft cheese, for example, he adds a coconut element to the cashew milk base, as well as a different culture. This cheese is placed in moulds and pressed to get rid of some of the water. “When the water has drained off, we let the cheese age for two weeks,” Mirko adds. The result, he says, is “like a fresh goat’s cheese”.
His semi-hard cheese is left to develop and mature for longer, eventually becoming firm enough to slice. “We don’t have a hard cheese, as for that we would have to age the cheese for six months to a year. The important thing is that we don’t add chemicals or preservatives to make them harder—no fixers or oils are used to change the texture. It is a very natural product.”
Mirko says that when you take them home, you should treat his cheeses as you would a dairy cheese. Wrapped in the cheese paper it comes in, a nut cheese will stay in perfect condition for up to seven days. Like dairy cheeses, they also pair beautifully with sourdough bread and a glass of wine. “We have goat-style cheese covered with white paprika that is very nice with a white wine like a chardonnay,” he advises. “The truffle and black pepper cheese, covered in activated ash, is perfect with a red wine because of the mushroomy taste of the truffles.”