Making Cheese & Making Friends: A Visit With the Ladies of Cowgirl Creamery

Maker Tour

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Who: Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, owners of Cowgirl Creamery
Where: Petaluma, California

On a sunny Thursday morning I got in my car and headed out to the quiet back roads of Petaluma, California. I was on my way to talk to some gals about cheese. Not just any gals, but Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, the well-respected owners of Cowgirl Creamery. You may have heard of Cowgirl Creamery before. Maybe you've slathered their popular Mt. Tam cheese onto crackers, or hidden the last nub of Red Hawk somewhere deep in the fridge so your husband couldn't find it. (Or is that just me?) If not, you should. Their cheese is pure, rich, and worthy of a happy dance.

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Peggy and Sue are somewhat legendary in the cheese making world. So much so that my cheese-loving self was nervous to meet them. That’s right, I had a touch of total cheese-star-struckedness! (If that’s not a thing, it should be.) It turns out these ladies are as kind and humble as their cheese is good. We sat down together and they took the time to answer my questions (even the silly ones) and shared their story with me. I even learned a thing or twelve about cheese.

How It All Began

Peggy Smith and Sue Conley are no strangers to the culinary world. After college, both women rose in ranks through the Bay Area food scene in the 1970s. Peggy cooked in the kitchen at Chez Panisse for seventeen years. Sue became co-owner of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley. Then, in the early 90s, they teamed up to start a new project together. They drew inspiration from the beautiful seaside town of Point Reyes, and their desire to help distribute the abundant and delicious products from local farms and dairies.

After a chance meeting with Ellen Strauss (of Strauss Dairy), Sue found herself entwined with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. She believed in its vision and wanted to help protect local farmland from development, ensuring local goods stayed local and farmers could continue to thrive.

With this in mind, Sue and Peggy joined forces to create Tomales Bay Foods and set up shop in a renovated hay barn in downtown Point Reyes. This barn came with a small cheese making room near the entry. This little room inspired them to fearlessly start the process of making their own cheeses. They sourced organic milk from the local Strauss Family Creamery, and began experimenting with their own blends. Lucky for us they succeeded, and Cowgirl Creamery was born.

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With Success Comes Growth

Since Cowgirl Creamery first opened its doors, it's grown exponentially. As the demand for their cheese grew, their working space diminished and they built a new facility in nearby Petaluma, California (connected to Point Reyes by a lovely road winding through Marin County farmlands). This move allowed them more space to dry their aged cheeses and the ability to increase their production. What started as the passion of two dedicated women grew to a staff of over 100.

But while the business has grown, the original Point Reyes location remains. I was able to visit both locations to really get a feel for their connection. Workers clad in sterile gear stir and separate curds in the same mixer the company started with. A connected aging room displays hundreds of cheeses on racks, each awaiting their turn for packaging and to ship to restaurants and shops around the country (and into the hands and mouths of hungry patrons). Fascinated children press their noses to the glass to see the process, and there’s a kind of magic in the air surrounding the whole process (maybe it’s just the smell of their two-cheese bacon macaroni cooking in the deli on the other side of the building).

The Point Reyes community was initially threatened by the prospect of a tourist-driven artisanal shop in their neighborhood, Sue explained. But they came around once they realized just what these ladies had created. And it's true. As I lowered my camera and admired the original shop and the smiling customers walking its floors, a local gentleman looked at me as he left and said, "You know, this place is really something special." I have to say, I couldn't agree more.

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Quality Ingredients and Happy Accidents

"You can make bad cheese out of good milk, but you can’t make a good cheese out of bad milk," Michael, the manager of the Point Reyes facility, explained. They pride themselves on the quality of the milk they use, which leads to a superior result in all of their cheeses. He pointed out their literal "secret sauce" in the original facility's brine tank. Since the brine is a salty antiseptic environment, it's never been completely changed, but only added to. He says that they like to think of it as "containing a piece of every cheese [they’ve] ever made." I loved this sentiment.

Also, did you know their award-winning Red Hawk cheese was actually a mistake? They were striving to make a batch of their popular Mt. Tam cheese, but due to a reaction from naturally-occurring bacteria thriving in the Point Reyes climate, a red hue took over the cheese rind instead of the expected white. It was the perfect mishap, and this cheese, Red Hawk (named for its color), is their most renowned cheese – taking home the "Best in Show" award from the American Cheese Society in 2003. Due to the unique climate, this cheese can only be made in Point Reyes.

But their methods go beyond accidents and brine. They make seasonal cheeses that represent the environment around the cows that make their milk. When cows are munching on wild flowers, Cowgirl Creamery encases a special cheese in dried flowers and herbs. When the mushrooms come out in the fall, you better believe they have a cheese encrusted with mushrooms. These small details show both respect and reverence for the land and the process.

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Collaboration Over Competition

I assumed cheese making would be the most difficult thing to learn when first starting off as a beginning cheese maker. I was wrong. Sure, there's a learning curve and many recipes to work out, but Peggy assured me "we never really worried about that. We had the confidence that we could follow recipes and figure things out along the way." Starting an artisan cheese making business in the early 90s came with a set of strangely practical challenges. These ladies were the first to have applied for an artisan cheese making permit in West Marin County since around World War II. "Cheese making was not something that was going on back then in a smaller format," explained Peggy. It took nearly three years to get all of the permits in place.

After they opened, they strived to be collaborative over competitive and to cultivate relationships between themselves and other people in their food community. There seems to be a great rapport between cheese makers, as most are very open about their process and willing to share their knowledge. "There isn't the same feeling of competitiveness in the cheese making community as there is in the chef world. It’s friendlier. There are fewer secrets. We'd love to keep it that way," says Sue.

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So rather than trying to outmaneuver the competition (as one might learn in business school), Peggy and Sue embrace them, selling cheeses from other local cheese makers in their shop and helping lift up those around them. There was a lack of helping hands when they began their business, so this is their way of giving back. They strive to be "everyone’s friend" and really cultivate relationships between their consumers, other cheese makers and dairy farmers. They lend a helping hand to newcomers when they can, and really strive to bring people up and prove that artisanal cheese making can be a viable career. This means that a kid with a culinary inclination can declare, "when I grow up, I want to make cheese" and mean it. In fact, one of their employees has recently become a Certified Cheese Professional through the American Cheese Society. This is a hefty certification that could be likened to the cheese equivalent of a sommelier. To celebrate cheese even further, Peggy and Sue are writing a new book filled with recipes and packed to the gills with their cheesy wisdom. It's their first book together, and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy this October.

The passion these two women possess is infectious. Listening to them describe their story with smiling eyes, and hearing how much they care about their product and their staff really makes you believe in local food. These are ladies who know where all of their ingredients come from, know the people who grow them as well as having a beautifully familiar relationship with their consumers. In a world where many have risen to the top by being cut throat and unkind, these women have found great success doing quite the opposite. They're pillars in their community and a true inspiration to anyone wanting to make a difference in the world. I left feeling quite inspired. Oh, and did I mention the wheel of aged soft-ripened cheese in my purse? Because, that too. 

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6 Quick Questions for Peggy and Sue

1. How do you usually enjoy your Cowgirl Creamery cheeses and which is your favorite?
Peggy: My favorite is the Mt. Tam cheese, and I usually just enjoy it simply with crackers.
Sue: I love our Red Hawk cheese, and it's really good with a little bit of sweet fig jam.

2. Do you have any sage advice for novice cheese makers trying to make cheese at home?
Peggy: It’s really difficult to do at home without having a separate room because of the sanitation that is necessary. You are dealing with a lot of bacteria growth, which can be sensitive. I'd also recommend taking a food safety class.
Sue: I agree with Peggy. You can also go to cheesemaking.com and purchase some great kits.

3. If you could have any two people over for dinner (dead or alive) who would they be and what would you eat?
Peggy: Eleanor Roosevelt and Julia Child. Oh, and since this is fantasy, we would be eating lobster since I am allergic.
Sue: I'd say Thomas Jefferson and Pat Elliot, and really, because of the company, it wouldn't matter what we were eating.

4. What should I be pairing with my cheese? I like wine. Does that work? I have no idea what I am doing. Help.
Peggy: Wine works well, especially if it is not high in tannins. In that regard, Sauvignon Blanc is usually a safe bet.  Beers work well, some teas and of course dessert wines work well with most cheese.
Sue: This is a big question. This is a whole chapter in our book, so I can't answer it in a few sentences. I can also refer you to Perfect Pairings by Evan Goldstein for excellent pairing philosophies

5. What is the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Peggy: Stay the course with your vision and be fearless. Don’t be afraid of failure.
Sue: Quality always sells. We have kept this mantra in every part of our business. Our milk is the best available, making our cheese of the highest quality and the other cheeses we work with are from producers who make cheese by hand or use traditional methods.

6. What is the one thing you can’t live without?
Peggy: I would have a hard time living without music.
Sue: The one cheese I can't live without is a great Parmesan.

7. If you were a cheese what kind of cheese would you be ?
Peggy: I would probably be some well-aged, wrinkly cheddar.
Sue: I would be a very fresh, handmade cottage cheese with crème fraiche dressing.

Thanks, Peggy and Sue!

(Images: Gina Biancaniello)

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