“A pizza isn’t a pizza without cheese,” says Nick Croft-Simon, co-founder of The White Rabbit Pizza Co. Which explains why vegan pizzas have had, in his words, “such a miserable track record.”
Or, indeed, a non-existent one, if the UK’s chilled aisles are anything to go by.
Until this week, that is, when The White Rabbit Pizza Co.’s The Smokin’ Vegan (£4.99) launched in 150 Sainsbury’s stores – the first chilled vegan pizza to launch in the UK. It’s also organic and gluten-free, topped with peppers, olives, tomatoes and smoked vegan cheese.
It took more than six months for Croft-Simon and his team to find a vegan cheese that “tastes good, is organic and is usable on a wider scale.” We called him up to ask about how they got to the finished product.
So what’s the problem with vegan cheese?
To use a technical term, most vegan cheese doesn’t ‘squidge out’ in the same way as mozzarella – it stays exactly where you put it on a pizza base, where a ‘normal’ cheese stretches out and covers the whole area. We had to find a dairy-free one that stretched, without the gritty texture and weird colour that you traditionally get on vegan cheese.
How did you manage that then?
This one is made with germinated whole rice, and it not only tastes great, but actually looks great too – and importantly, behaves like cheese in cooking terms. It comes from near Venice – our supplier, MozzaRisella, was also fairly new when we started out, so luckily we were among the first to sign on the dotted line with them. Now we know we’ve got it sussed, and we are their only UK outlet.
The base was a priority for you too, wasn’t it?
The base is a big deal to start with. The dough recipe is exclusively ours and took over a year to develop. A big priority for Matteo [fellow co-founder whose Italian family have owned pizzerias in the past] was creating a thin and crispy, Italian-style base. Texture is also incredibly important; a lot of other gluten-free bases we tried were far too brittle. Our acid test was being able to fold a slice over to eat, as you would a conventional pizza, without the base cracking.
Do we like our pizzas the same way as Italians though?
Well, interestingly, one thing we’ve learnt is that the UK palate tends to favour a softer, thicker dough, whereas the Italians like theirs thin and crispy. More recently, we’ve tried to find a happy middle ground between the two, and the product is all the better for it.
Why do you think free-from is so much bigger than organic right now?
People don’t really seem to understand organic in the same way. Free-from is more tangible – it is without one particular ingredient, people get it. With organic it’s about farming techniques, pesticides, hormones – I think that’s a lot harder to take on face value. But we decided to pursue it because it’s a hallmark of quality… It’s proof of your good intent.
So what’s next?
Definitely to develop more vegan options to add to our portfolio, and to increase our distribution. But we don’t want to be thought of as just free-from or vegan. We could do any kind of pizza. We might even ‘go normal’ one day.