Encased in a white bloomy rind, Cowgirl Creamery’s signature, triple-cream Mt Tam on a Rustic Bakery cracker with a dab of Jamnation‘s seville orange marmalade is more than the perfect mouthful, it’s also a taste of Northern California. Pairings with neighboring collaborators (be it bakeries, farmers, winemakers and beer-brewers) have always been integral to the mission of Cowgirl founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith and their dedication has helped bolster the local agricultural and food community. Conley and Smith’s Cowgirl Creamery cantina is north of San Francisco in West Marin, near the stunning Reyes National Seashore—a rural and serene place that’s home to a rich culinary tradition and some very delicious cheese.
Their store—a converted barn—is easily identified, thanks to the familiar logo: a women on a rearing horse, tipping her hat. It’s here that the duo launched Tomales Bay Foods to showcase West Marin’s products, and then Cowgirl Creamery. “This is where everything started,” says Conley. “In 1994 we bought the building. There were a lot of visitors to Pt Reyes National Seashore. We had this idea that we knew we could make a sandwich.” (In fact, Smith spent 17 years cooking at Chez Panisse, and Conley had worked at several significant restaurants before opening Bay Area darling Bette’s Oceanview Diner.) Beginning with sandwiches made with local ingredients, Conley and Smith eventually decided to craft fresh cheese.
After producing fresh varieties, for their first aged cheese Smith and Conley wanted to recreate and reimagine the crowd-pleasing appeal of one of their European favorites. “We like the popular cheese in France, the Saint-André,” says Conley. “Everybody goes for it at the table. It is the first thing to disappear. We wanted to make something that was that popular as our first aged cheese.”
The result, their Mt Tam—an organic triple-cream cow’s milk cheese—spends two to three weeks in the aging room then needs to be turned multiple times before wrapping. Using classic cheesemaking techniques, it’s made from local milk that’s high in protein and butter fat from grass-fed cows.
“We wanted a cheese that wasn’t flavored or too messed about,” says Smith. “Because we really wanted to focus on the milk from the Straus family Creamery.” The resulting cheese tastes buttery with a hint of white mushroom and a lemony tang. They’ve been making it for 20 years now. “It is still our biggest selling cheese, by far. It is probably 60% of our production,” says Conley. “We are still proud of it.”
Cowgirl Creamery now makes a dozen cheeses, including their award-winning Red Hawk which was created thanks to a lucky mistake—when stilton cheese mites accidentally got on a batch of Mt Tam that was resting in the aging room. When Conley went to turn the cheese and discovered the problem, she tried to save the batch of Mt Tam by spraying with candida mold and later found it had developed a light pink rind. She was upset about the mistake until she tasted it (with their colleague and friend Kate Arding) and discovered the new flavor profile had developed its own magic. That year, Cowgirl’s Red Hawk won best cheese in America from the American Cheese Society.
Cowgirl Creamery’s knack seems to be combining a dedication to experimentation, tradition and science all at once. This is evident in all their products, for instance—they spent weeks trying to recreate German quark for a friend in order to satiate his craving for a childhood favorite he remembered eating in Hamburg. Or their cottage cheese, which is influenced by a Russian version. Or that best-selling French-inspired Mt Tam. All the while, Cowgirl Creamery remains distinctly Californian.
Conley and Smith created Cowgirl Creamery in the ’90s together by taking on every job in the company—from making the cheeses to driving the trucks, working farmers markets, cleaning the facilities, and beyond. Conley says “It is not romantic. It is cold. It is wet. It’s a lot of cleaning. Long hours, It’s physically exhausting.” Smith adds, “There are a lot of technical things you really need to understand. A lot of science.” And while the duo recently turned over the day-to-day operations to their growing and highly skilled team, their dedication and adoration for cheesemaking is undeniable.
When asked how they feel when a cheese enthusiast lights up hearing the name Cowgirl Creamery, Conley and Smith both smile—the latter telling us, “It’s because they can taste it when they think about it.”
Images courtesy of Cowgirl Creamery