What makes cheese truly vegetarian?

Wet your thistle!

click to enlarge Walnuts drizzled with maple syrup and a glass of Pinot Noir perfectly complement this veg-friendly cheese. - Kira Jefferson
Kira Jefferson
Walnuts drizzled with maple syrup and a glass of Pinot Noir perfectly complement this veg-friendly cheese.

If you are a vegetarian and include cheese as a part of your daily diet, you should know that most cheese contains animal rennet. Milk has to be set in order to turn into cheese. Enzymes extracted from the stomach of herd animals provide the most common coagulants.

The story of the origin of cheese dates back to some time before recorded history when a random wanderer traveled with a canteen made from the stomach of a calf filled with milk. As this ancient gypsy crossed the miles and his food source reacted to the enzymes in his traveling pouch, the result was curds and whey. The evolution of the contents of that canteen became the cheese we enjoy today, and in our current market, the demand for cheeses not coagulated with animal rennet grows.

Although several other vegetarian and microbial sources provide enzymes that can set milk, the ancient practice of using cardoon thistle stamens has become a favorite. When talking about thistle rennet cheese, Torta La Serena from Extremadura Spain holds my heart. This very creamy cheese gets cooked at a low temperature with an infusion of dried cardoon rennet. The final wheel of cheese has an unctuous paste with a fresh, woody flavor. Torta La Serena is traditionally served swaddled in cheesecloth with the top cut off and its pudding-like texture exposed. Letting the entire wheel come to room temperature creates the perfect consistency for scooping it up like slightly melted ice cream. Enjoy Torta La Serena with a vinegar-based golden raisin relish like the easy recipe at right. The sharp flavor of the accompaniment cuts through the whipped texture of the floral, sheepy cheese. The vegetal nuances from the thistle can make pairing challenging, but if you enjoy sherries then try an oloroso. Oloroso sherry has a rich and nutty flavor without an overpowering sweetness. The earthy Torta La Serena cheese, tangy fruit relish and sweet sherry create the perfect trifecta.

Derived from a different plant source and made near an English village that shares its name, the treasured sheep’s milk cheese Berkswell is also vegetarian-friendly. Berkswell’s flavor notes leave warm whiskey and roasted nuts on the palate. This cheese’s paste has a compact and crumbly texture due to the basket mold used to press it. The grey stone-colored rind holds the impressions of the mold in woven artistry. I can smell sweet clover when I cut into a wheel of Berkswell. It transports me to an English farm nestled on a grassy hillside in the 16th century. A pile of walnuts drizzled with maple syrup and a bottle of Pinot Noir will perfectly complement a chunk of this rustic cheese.

These are just two examples of the many cheeses you can enjoy on a vegetarian diet. Just get in the habit of checking labels to determine if the cheeses you purchase contain animal ingredients. Cheese makers denote rennet types in many different ways, as the FDA does not yet have a standard. In addition to labels that read “vegetable rennet,” look for “microbial.” This process sets cheese by the fermentation of a fungus or bacteria. Some vegetarian labels will read “non-animal,” “rennetless” or “vegetarian/microbial coagulants.” Regardless of the verbiage, all are perfect for your meatless munchies!

Golden Raisin Arbequina Olive Relish
By Chef Chad Johnson, SideBern's


1 red bell pepper, diced small
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
3/4 cup cider vinegar
2 cups golden raisins
1 cup chopped Arbequina olives (the small, brown ones)


1. Saute garlic, shallot, and red pepper in olive oil on medium heat until tender.
2. Add the remaining ingredients, except the olives, and simmer over medium heat until liquid is absorbed by the raisins
3. Remove from the heat and fold in the chopped olives and serve.

Kira Jefferson is the resident “cheese guru” at SideBern’s in South Tampa.

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