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Cheese that acts like meat

Delicious, meatless sausage seemed the stuff of fantasy for vegetarian Gianaclis Caldwell, but a soy-free, gluten-free solution surfaced in her subconscious.

“I literally had a dream about it,” says the cheesemaker and co-owner of Pholia Farm in Rogue River. “It’s a whole new category of cheese.”

Caldwell’s Cheesorizo, introduced about a year ago, crumbles like ground meat and tastes like sausage, but it contains only milk, vinegar, olive oil, salt and spices. It’s lower in fat than many meats but still high in protein, with the added benefit of calcium, she says. All three flavors, “fiesta,” Italian and sage, will be available for sampling at Saturday’s Oregon Cheese Festival in Central Point.

The 12th annual festival brings more than 30 local and regional specialty-foods businesses to one event. With the feel of an outdoors farmers market under large tents, the festival is set for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 19, at Rogue Creamery, 311 N. Front St., Central Point.

Caldwell’s is a familiar face at the festival. Her handcrafted goat cheeses made a splash in big-city cheese shops almost a decade ago and won some of the industry’s top awards.

“There’s a lot of value in the Oregon brand,” she says.

But Pholia has since curtailed shipments to metropolitan markets, producing only enough artisan cheeses to meet local demand. Cheese plates and salads at Larks restaurants in Medford and Ashland command almost all of Pholia’s portfolio: a half-dozen varieties of semihard, washed-rind cheese, as well as its flagship Pheta, aka Evans Creek Greek.

Cutting cheese production in half allowed Caldwell time to focus on Gia’s Cheesorizo while also writing and lecturing about cheesemaking and goat-herd management. Diminutive Nigerian dwarf goats yield high-fat milk suited to Pholia’s small batches of Old World-style cheese.

Umpqua brand cow’s milk is the main component of Cheesorizo, which Caldwell likens to Indian paneer or Mediterranean halloumi. The key to making cheese that won’t melt when cooked is to heat the milk to such a high temperature that it rearranges the proteins into clusters, says Caldwell.

“I’ve always loved paneer,” says Caldwell.

But unlike paneer and halloumi, Cheesorizo can’t be sliced or diced because of all the incorporated spices. The paprika, chili powder and other spices are sourced from Oregon Spice Co.

“You really do rely on spices a lot more,” she says of vegetarian cooking.

Absent from Cheesorizo’s ingredient list are sugar and artificial colors and flavors, prevalent in many meat substitutes, along with added water, which makes for a mushy finished product, instead of the crisp texture that Caldwell craved. Customers can’t believe that Cheesorizo’s color and flavor come only from natural seasonings, she says.

“Almost across the board, they can’t believe there’s not meat in it.”

Cheesorizo is available locally at Rogue Creamery’s Central Point cheese shop, Gooseberries Grocery in Grants Pass and Pholia’s farm store. It also has a promising — albeit small — presence in Eugene and Portland. Caldwell says she is using social media and other marketing strategies to raise Cheesorizo’s profile.

The meat substitute is prominent in tacos prepared at The Haul restaurant in Grants Pass. Combined with butternut squash and black beans in fall and winter, with zucchini and whole cumin seeds in summer, Cheesorizo lends a “filling aspect” that can be hard to achieve with vegetables alone, says co-owner Gabrielle Rysula.

“We love the flavor of it,” says Rysula. “It provides some more protein for the customers.”

Also available for purchase in The Haul’s prepared-foods case, Cheesorizo could be a “very easy no-brainer” addition to pasta, gnocchi or salad, says Rysula.

“It’s just really unique,” says the chef, who cooked for several years at a vegetable-oriented eatery in Chicago. “I honestly had never seen anything like it.”

Packaged in 6-ounce “chubs,” Cheesorizo is priced from $4.89 to $5.99. For more information, recipes and to buy online, see www.cheesorizo.com

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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Cheesorizo is a vegetarian meat substitute that works well in tacos. Pictured here is 'fiesta' Cheesorizo, one of three variations made at Pholia Farm in Rogue River.
Patties of cheesorizo look like bulk sausage as they brown in a pan.