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Maria and Fabio Variola. Photo: John McDonald.

Happy Heart Vegan Gourmet makes aged vegan cheese with European influences

By John McDonald on January 18, 2019

Sir Paul McCartney, in a 2018 Wired magazine Q & A session, was asked if he is a vegan. He replied that he was a vegetarian.

“I eat cheese.”

No doubt Sir Paul has noticed that finding a good dairy-free alternative to cheese can be difficult. That’s exactly what spurred Ottawa’s Maria Variola and her husband Fabio Variola to develop Happy Heart Vegan Gourmet cheeses.

The couple had moved to Spain with Fabio’s work. There, they soon found that, as vegans, there was little choice for cheese. Maria, who has a background in health care, took a cheese production course before heading to her kitchen to conceive dairy-free alternatives.

Photo provided by Happy Heart Vegan Gourmet.

“The training focused on the traditional methods used in the dairy cheese farms of France. I used these methods in my kitchen to develop different recipes,” says Maria. “There were many attempts. Many failures, but we kept at it.”

“There were many attempts. Many failures, but we kept at it.”

She relied on friends and family in Italy, France, and Spain to test her results and give feedback.

“Europeans know their cheeses and most are not vegans. So we thought that if a non-vegan European likes what we’ve developed, then we’re good to go,” says Maria.

While deciding to take the next step and bring it to market, work brought them back to Ottawa. And so Happy Heart was born.

There are six cheeses in the line-up: Petit Cam (a cashew-based, vegan twin of traditional dairy Camembert), Petit Cendré (a Cendré-style Camembert), Petit Bleu (a mild alternative to the strong dairy blue cheeses), Petit Fumé (cold-smoked with hickory wood smoke), Petit Épicé (cultured with Spanish smoked paprika), and Petit Shèvre (Soft chèvre-style with an aromatic herbed rind).

The cheeses are handmade and are aged in Ottawa.

“The main difference between us and other vegan cheeses is that we age. We have two collections: Fresh and Aged. The Fresh is cultured for 2 to 3 weeks, and our Aged for 4 to 6 weeks,” says Maria.

“The main difference between us and other vegan cheeses is that we age.”

The hand-made aspect of production coupled with the aging time, means that their output is limited.

“It’s worth it because it is the end result that matters,” says Maria.

There was careful consideration of all aspects of production. As part of the couple’s priority that their business activities be “Earth-friendly,” all of the products are packaged in 100% plant-based, compostable packaging. Most are made from 100% recycled materials as well.

The cheese launched in April of 2018 and reaction was immediately positive.

“We’re delighted that we are able to offer quality vegan, environmentally-friendly cheese options,” says Maria. “It brings us such joy.”

Happy Heart Vegan Gourmet cheeses can be found at many local food shops, including Herb and Spice, Market Organics, Natural Food Pantry, La Boîte à Grains, NU Grocery and Rainbow Foods. They are also available from the company’s online store