Foodie Antonela forging reputation in burgeoning plant-based food market with her cashew-based cheese alternative
Delicious vegan-friendly cheese is not always easy to find — but one budding Belfast entrepreneur is determined to shake up the plant-based market with her cashew-based creations.
Antonela Schiano di Coscia launched her business, called Nourish, last year and is already winning rave reviews and a loyal following.
Originally from Argentina, Antonela (40) moved to east Belfast “for love” and is currently making her cheeses from her home kitchen.
She stocks several artisan food shops and delis in the city with her ever-expanding range and has also sent samples to some top London restaurants.
“For many vegans, the holy grail is finding a good cheese,” she laughs. “Some of the brands out there just don’t taste very good, or they don’t melt like they should.
“Others are full of palm oil and additives. I wanted to make my cheeses from natural ingredients because lots of people follow a plant-based diet for health reasons, so they want to know what’s in their food.”
Antonela has honed her cooking skills during years of travelling the world. Originally from a coastal city called Mar del Plata in Argentina, her father is Italian and her mother is a classically-trained chef, so she grew up with an appreciation of “good food”.
She began experimenting with vegetarianism in 2011, for animal welfare reasons.
“I’m a huge animal lover and I realised that if I wouldn’t be prepared to kill an animal for food myself then it was totally hypocritical of me to pay someone else to do it for me.
“Also I was educating myself about the planet and climate change. If we stop growing food to feed animals and use it to feed people instead then we could basically solve world hunger.”
She learned to make healthy meat-free meals after helping a friend launch a vegan café in Cambodia when she was travelling in South East Asia.
“There’s a real misconception that vegan food is bland,” she explains. “People don’t realise that vegans can be foodies too. For me it was so important to learn how to make tasty plant-based meals because I’m such a food lover — it’s in my heritage.”
After a stint in Rome in 2016, Antonela met the man who changed her life — Belfast boy Adam Stronge (35) — in London in 2019.
“I moved to Northern Ireland for love,” she laughs. “Why else — definitely not for the weather! It’s such a beautiful place though, I feel happy to have made my home here. The countryside is so beautiful and I love being so close to the coast because I grew up by the sea.”
It was after relocating to Northern Ireland that she took the plunge and started experimenting with food-based business ideas. She began catering for vegan dinner parties and making sweet treats for local cafes. She offered free taste-testing sessions to groups of vegans in return for honest feedback.
But it was after enrolling on an online course with well-known vegan chef Matthew Kenney, and learning how to use a dehydrator, that she began experimenting with plant-based cheeses.
“Cheese is one of the big things that a lot of people say they miss when they go vegan,” she says. “I don’t see why we should have to miss out, just because we don’t want to eat dairy, so it was a real breakthrough moment for me when I started making vegan cheeses that were genuinely tasty.
“I actually made up a cheeseboard one day and taste-tested them on my partner — who isn’t vegan or even vegetarian. He said, ‘You know what, these actually taste good!’ You know you’re onto something when even non-vegans admit your food is nice.
“I took some into Nature’s Way, on the Upper Newtownards Road, and was bowled over when they called me a few days later and said they wanted to stock them. They were my first real commercial supporters and I’m so grateful to them for giving me a platform and opportunity.
“I took my first batch of cheese out to them and literally within a day they’d sold out.”
Her cheese is cashew-based and she makes a range of flavours, including Wild Thing, with foraged wild garlic and hemp, Basilico, with basil and lemon, and Cashew e Pepe with black peppercorns.
“My favourite, Black Heart, is the really smoky one. I smoke it myself in my own kitchen. That’s the one I often set out at markets for people to taste because it seems to be really popular.
“I also love The Melter, which is really useful because it’s got a large coconut oil content, which makes it easy to melt for cooking, but I’ve made sure it doesn’t actually taste like coconut. Cheese shouldn’t taste of coconut.
“Then there’s my new one, Chimichurri, which is heavily inspired by my Argentinian roots, with a thick herb crust and a hint of chilli. In Argentina chimichurri is a staple and everyone’s granny seems to have the best recipe, so I used my own gran’s one as the basis for this cheese.”
Antonela has also started creating cheese boards, and stocking a growing number of shops and delis, including The Nutmeg in Belfast City Centre and Eat Well, on Lisburn Road.
She’s preparing to start a collaboration with vegan café 387 Ormeau Road, and says she’d love to emulate the success of London-based vegan chef Yotam Ottolenghi.
“My mum hasn’t actually tasted my cheeses yet,” she laughs. “That’s going to be a big deal because she’s a chef. I just want to keep creating different flavours, and expanding and building my brand, and perhaps start stocking some restaurants that really appreciate artisan produce.
“I also want to keep educating people that vegan food doesn’t have to be boring.
“I also love to get feedback from people trying my cheeses, so do get in touch on social media and show me what you’ve been doing with them.”
For more information find Antonela on Instagram @nourish.goodfood