It's the Cheese

You could say it was fate. Sue Conley and Peggy Smith met at the University of Tennessee and after graduation toured the United States in a self-proclaimed hippie bus. On the stop in San Francisco, Conley fell in love with the magic of the city and eventually moved there, co-owned Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley and then moved to Point Reyes. Smith settled in the Bay Area too, working her way up the restaurant ladder with gigs at neighborhood eateries and, eventually, cooking at Chez Panisse. However, it wasn’t until a chance knock on the door from Ellen Straus, matriarch of the Straus Family Creamery, that Conley and Smith’s true calling would begin to emerge. For a cheese maker, as Conley points out, the biggest challenge is finding a good source of milk; 17 years and countless awards later, Cowgirl Creamery still gets its milk from the Straus family dairy.

You could make cheese almost anywhere. Why Marin?   Marin is one of the best places in the country to make cheese, because it’s pretty much a consistent temperature year round, the grasses have a long growing season, and there’s a cool, damp climate.

You work closely with the Straus family dairy. How did your partnership get started?   It started when I met Ellen Straus. She was going door to door as part of a Democratic campaign group and I was familiar with who she was from reading Farming on the Edge, which was about the farm families of West Marin. She started telling me about her son Albert and how he was in the process of transitioning his farm to certified organic, and I thought that was great.

I signed on with Albert to help him market the milk he was producing in the first certified organic dairy in the West. At this point Peggy wasn’t involved—she was still at Chez Panisse—but I signed her on in 1996.

There are more than 50 cheese-making companies in California alone. How does Cowgirl Creamery stand out?  There’s a new group called the California Artisans Cheese Guild, and the distinguishing characteristic is that we’re all small-production cheese makers. For example, Hilmar [another California cheese-making company] produces almost a million pounds of cheese per day, whereas Cowgirl makes 600 pounds a day.

How did you learn how to make cheese?   The local cheese makers were really very generous with sharing information. When I started making cheese I used a trial-and-error method, which they all told me to do, because cheese making is different for everyone; results depend on what milk you use and where you’re making the product. I also went to classes at the University of Washington.

Is there still a fear of fat when it comes to eating cheese, and if yes, should there be?
Well, it’s a good fat. If you buy something that has a lot of flavor the tendency is not to eat as much. Just have a little bit of something delicious.

Do you have any tips on how to cook with cheese at home?  Our fromage blanc and crème fraîche are staples for good cooking in the home. Finishing a sauce with crème fraîche makes it so much more delicious. Fromage blanc is like a light cream cheese and works well with blintzes and cannolis. Our cottage cheese is also unbelievable with fresh noodles, black pepper and parmesan.

How do you decide what cheese to make next?  It’s really what our customers want. We have (our own) retail stores so we really have a good sense of what they’re asking for. Right now they like small-format cheeses, so next we’re making beautiful columns of two or three ounces that have a chalky texture and have a little sweet and sour taste of fresh milk. We’re calling them Inverness.
What advice can you give a customer for pairing cheese with wine?   The easiest wines to pair with cheese have a little sweetness. Try a dessert wine or the less tannic red wines or dry white wines. However, the best idea is to get a recommendation from a restaurant sommelier or waiter.

What made you decide to open your operation to the public for tours?  The reason we opened it up was to promote the agriculture business of Point Reyes and Marin. When Peggy and I were cooking we worked in open kitchens where the cooks were part of the customer experience. We both thought that would be a great way to introduce people to cheese making. Visitors might begin to understand the connection between the farms and the food that’s produced from them.

What is your favorite cheese?  Cottage cheese, because it looks very simple to make but is actually very difficult and starts out the same way you make hard cheeses like cheddar—the cheese maker has to use all his senses when making it.

If you weren’t a cheese maker, what else would you have done?   I’m really interested in architecture and planning. To have a business in a rural economy is a challenge. I think that Point Reyes is really moving in a wonderful direction, with the whole town being promoted as a place where people can get great food that still has an ethical quality to it, because it’s primarily organic and the area’s farmers’ market has all local producers. I would love to be a town planner, but I couldn’t have planned a better town.

What does the future hold for Cowgirl Creamery?   Peggy and I grew up on the East Coast, and we knew we wanted to do something there, so recently we opened a store in Washington, D.C. Here (in Marin) we have a wholesale business and a retail business; we’d like to do the same thing there—offer the cheeses on our counter to restaurant chefs and small retailers.

And finally—we are all curious—how did you come up with the name Cowgirl Creamery?   I don’t have a good answer for that. I guess Ellen Straus gave it to us when she told us we were working in the Wild West.