In Conversation With Karen McAthy, Chef and Founder of Blue Heron Creamery

Photo by Catherine Downes

We recently had the opportunity to have a discussion with local cookbook author and chef/founder of Blue Heron Creamery. In our in-depth interview, the woman behind Vancouver’s foremost purveyor of plant-based cheeses opines on the politicking of food accessibility and tinkering with bacteria.

Vegan “dairy” products – especially “cheeses” – have advanced a ton over the past decade or so. Companies like Blue Heron have had a hand at elevating these products out of their vegan niche and into the world of gourmet foods, possibly even creating a whole new category in the process. What initially inspired you to create cultured, plant-based cheeses? Where did this visionary idea come from?

Such good questions! While I was the executive chef of a now closed vegan restaurant, Graze, I wanted to offer a sharing board to our guests, but I couldn’t find any cheese alternatives that I liked. I began looking at recipes on line, but didn’t love them. None of them explained why ingredients work or don’t work, or offered troubleshooting for if things didn’t work.

So I began researching dairy cheesemaking history and methodology. During this it became apparent to me that it was about understanding these processes as scientific equations, and that it was possible to test different variables (e.g. ingredients, temp, humidity, microbes, digestive enzymes, etc), and see what might yield the kind of results I seek. I like to understand how things work. If I can understand something from a conceptual place, I can then work out details for more precise examination.

How did you know it was worth the risk of venturing into this relatively new world of food?

Hahahah…who says that I did or do? The food industry challenges one at such a deep and personal level, almost continuously. While I was still at Graze I was approached by a publisher to write a book about the methods I was evolving, and then later by someone interested in the possibility of helping the concept move beyond Graze.

After Graze closed I took another executive chef post, but was doing research and development for the book (The Art of Plan-based Cheesemaking, New Society Publishers, 2017, winner of Gourmand World Cookbook awards both Canada, vegan category and globally vegan category 2018), and needed to off-load all the excess experimental cheeses. I kept getting messages requesting cheese, and it sort of just evolved to a place that I had to make a decision to leap. That was made realizable and somewhat less frightening when I reconnected with a former Graze guest and acquaintance, Colin Medhurst, who is now the co-owner, my business partner of BH, and one of my closest friends.

Does Blue Heron have an environmental mission? What is it?

I don’t know that we have an overt environmental mission per se. Rather we are trying to build our company around values that are not typically included until companies get much larger. We try to use minimal packaging, and are always seeking to find the best packaging that can be environmentally responsible, keep the product at its best state, and satisfy regulatory authorities. So far, that is the paper we use, which is recyclable, but we have heard of a compostable one that we are hoping to try soon. In other words we are trying to normalize it rather than make it a mission.

Our mission in general is to try minimize our waste produced as much as possible (even materials sold to zero-waste stores involve some degree of packaging – produce in cardboard, nuts or seeds in some form of packaging). Toward the end of minimizing our contribution to waste/carbon emissions, we have been involved in ongoing r&d on some new ingredients grown here in Canada which are showing a lot of promise, and will eventually lead to us reducing our use of imported goods.

Blue Heron cheeses aren’t cheap. Ingredients are expensive and the aging process is long and painstaking, so the cost is understandable. Where do you stand on the idea that leading a healthy and eco-friendly lifestyle and consuming a plant-based diet is one that’s exclusive to the privileged few?

I hear this comment a lot in the broader sphere of food conversations, but we are frequently told by guests that we do not charge enough. This question brings to mind a number of issues that I will try to address.

In general, this idea that food should be ‘cheap’ is flawed. Cheap food comes at a cost to someone, some place, some local economy, some local ecosystem. Cheap food is falsely inexpensive because true value (eg: labour and environment) are not fully accounted for and so become invisible factors in terms of ingredient production and processing. A great current example is happening right now in the coffee sector, where farmers are selling at below the cost of growing/production, and are therefore not able to keep up with care of their crops, take care of their staff and families, while fancy coffee shops in urban centres charge a significant price for the coffee (in order to cover big city rents, and labour costs etc).

I don’t think cheap and accessible are the same thing, in other words. I think we need to look more broadly at the food system and how it is currently structured and what could be done to change it (major economic system reform). I also don’t think this issue of healthy/local food being potentially inaccessible to all but the privileged few can be a critique cast solely at the plant-based food sector. There are a good number of high end meat/omni-focused restos and food products in this city that would fall well outside of ‘accessible’.

I have had this conversation with many folks this year in interviews and in classes I teach, and something I have come to mention is that when I was a child, it was the low income families that had multi-grain/whole wheat/homemade bread and fruit and such for school lunches, while the wealthier families had processed foods like fruit roll ups, and white bread, etc. Over the years, as large food manufacturing companies have gained the ability to produce these kinds of highly processed foods at lower cost, they have now become the kind of things associated with being ‘accessible’, and the food of my family as a child has become the food of the privileged and less accessible. If we aren’t asking ourselves questions about this issue as it pertains across the food system, then we are asking the wrong or short sighted questions as an industry and community.

As for our products and company specifically, we regularly review our prices and always keep some cheeses at a lower price so that they can be more accessible to more folks. Our longer aging cheeses are more expensive, just as are long aging dairy cheeses, because that is a product that takes more knowledge and labour to produce, and holds up space until it is ready for sale, meaning, it takes away space from faster aging products which can be sold more quickly. We know that once we can get into a larger manufacturing facility that some price adjustments can be made because we’ll be able to purchase ingredients at higher scales of economy, but keeping a small food business running in Vancouver is an expensive endeavour.

We also seek to work with ingredients that take into account the producer/grower/environmental/other ethical considerations at the beginning of this chain, and that means making choices that include those ethical considerations to the best of our abilities at this time.

  • Photo by Colin Medhurst
    Photo by Colin Medhurst
  • Photo by Andre Shepperd, Dremond Studios
    Photo by Andre Shepperd, Dremond Studios
  • Photo by Colin Medhurst
    Photo by Colin Medhurst
  • Photo by Andre Shepperd, Dremond Studios
    Photo by Andre Shepperd, Dremond Studios
  • Photo by Colin Medhurst
    Photo by Colin Medhurst

Even a seasoned foodie might find some of your ingredients pretty exotic. Where do you currently source your knowledge, ideas and ingredients?

Hmmm…Knowledge: from reading and researching (which I do a lot), from workshopping ideas with fellow chefs, fermenters, and those I work closely with. Curiosity drives me, and I am always wanting to understand more. As a child I would taste blades of grass and the ends of red clover just to see what they tasted like. I’m not that different now.

Ideas: ideas come from a synthesis of all the interactions of above…so I keep a journal by my bed, for those times I need to write something down before it disappears. Ideas come from everywhere, in the middle of a conversation/trouble shooting session with a fellow chef/fermenter/colleague, a walk in the woods, or along the shore, from catching the scent of something that intrigues me, from observing the things around me.

Ingredients; from carefully selected suppliers, from those I forage or grow myself, from foragers like Alexander McNaughton, from local farmers like Naty King (Hazelmere Organic Farms), Solefood Farms, Inner City, Cropthorne, Sweet Digz, et cetera.

How much of the Blue Heron process is left up to experimentation and how does that compare to when you first starting making plant-based cheeses?

Great question. From the beginning, I have approached my exploration of processes in terms of setting up quasi-formal scientific experiments. I don’t always love the “just throw everything together and see what happens approach”. I prefer to create a sort of hypothesis (which evolves as I gain more knowledge and experience), and then set up a test to evaluate ingredients, process, etc.

So, the main thing that has changed is that I know much more than I did 6 years ago, (still have so much more to learn!), and that we have a food scientist on our team to assist with executing the tests I want to explore.

Thinking ahead, what new and innovative opportunities (flavour profiles, styles, techniques, ingredients, etc.) are you excited to venture into in the future?

Oh my. I am very excited to be releasing the first of our Lupini-based cultured and aged cheeses this month (November). I have been engaged in an r&d exchange with a company in the Netherlands, exploring various approaches to using lupins (a legume) in plant-based cheesemaking, and we have 2 that are ready enough for us to release, Lady Lupin, and Wolf Flower (their introductory names). We will also be releasing, at the same time, our Beachwood, an 18 month old almond based cheese that is beer washed and smoked repeatedly, and will be a very good replacement for a parmesan reggiano cheese.

Additionally, I have been working on several styles of mold ripened cheeses, and have one that I am satisfied enough with to be putting into regular (albeit small) production on the regular: our Galaxias bleu. It’s an ashed blue cheese that uses both blue and white molds and is very umami forward. There is also a beautiful, extremely creamy bloomy rinded cheese that will be seeing a limited late winter release.

In the spring, our oat tests will be seeing their first releases, and at least one other surprise ingredient base.

Since opening the cheese store, what have you learned about running a successful brick and mortar business?

Hahaha…oh my goodness. I feel like sometimes I have learned a lifetime of things and yet nothing at all. But in seriousness, I have learned that maintaining a focus on your intended purpose or vision is necessary. A lot of distractions will come your way, a lot of opportunities are not always the right or best ones, or the right ones for where you are at, and learning how to stay focused and grounded in what it is that you are trying to achieve is critical. How else will you be able to survive the constant slog, low margins, impact on your social life, and all the rest otherwise? And, make sure to find a space where you can develop a healthy and positive relationship with your landlord.

Tell me one aspect of Blue Heron – the business or the process – that would surprise me.

This is the hardest of all the questions! Would it surprise you to hear that we are loving the process despite how incredibly challenging, or more that our current production space is less than 1000 sq feet?

Lastly, something light: party season is imminent – what do you recommend for pleasing a crowd of discerning and undiscerning palates over the holidays? Do you have a favourite pairing and/or recipe that you can share with our readers?

Our Mostarda Cheddar (this one pairs with IPAs and crisp sharp wit beers really well), Herb & Garlic, and Okanagan are some of our most popular crowd pleasing cheeses and play well with many other things on graze boards (we always seek to use some fellow producers on our catered boards. Plantbase Food and products wack forest ham goes with all three cheeses, and Biota Fermentation pickled jalapenos and curried cauliflower are staples).

Pairing wise, I am very excited about our soon to be released Lady Lupin and Ursa Major wines Flaming June viognier.

And a quick recipe:

Smoky Apricot & Black Olive Tapenade

1 Cup pitted black olives
1/4 -1/3 cup dried apricot
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbsp capers (don’t drain them)
Tbsp olive oil (or smoked olive oil)
1tsp smoked paprika
1/2 dried chili pepper
a squeeze of lemon juice
pinch salt and pepper

Put into a blender and pulse it until you achieve the texture you want.

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