Happy cows may come from California, but it took two enterprising women from Tennessee to turn their milk into a thriving cheese culture.
It wasn’t for the food that Cowgirl Creamery founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith pointed their car west and hit the gas. What motivated the two recent University of Tennessee grads to pick up stakes in 1976 was the same thing that’s been luring people beyond the Mississippi for generations. “We wanted to see the United States,” Conley says. “It was exciting. We moved west because of adventure. Period.”
If they went for adventure, they stayed for the food. After reaching the San Francisco Bay Area, where the burgeoning California food scene was coalescing, they began a culinary adventure that would lead them just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, to Marin County and the tiny town of Point Reyes Station. There, Conley and Smith (below) now preside over an artisanal empire that purveys their own handmade organic cheeses, as well as those from nearby family farms, that are carefully curdled from the region’s bountiful milk supply.
Before the pair found themselves renovating an old barn in Point Reyes Station in the 1990s, however, they spent a couple of decades working independently in the Bay Area, learning the ropes of the food business. Smith got a job at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, the Berkeley restaurant at the vanguard of the region’s sustainable food movement. Meanwhile, Conley spent time honing her skills in kitchens throughout California and Oregon before opening Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley with Bette and Manfred Kroening (in keeping with the Bay Area’s culinary trend, the restaurant serves food made from local, seasonal products, but in a classic Formica-accented diner setting).
After selling her share in Bette’s, Conley relocated to Point Reyes Station. It’s there that she met the late Ellen Straus, co-owner of the Straus Family Creamery and cofounder of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. Conley joined the board of the grass-roots organization, which is dedicated to preserving farmland from urban development, and became deeply involved in the region’s agricultural community.
Through the efforts of the trust, more than 40,000 acres of Marin farmland had been saved from development. However, as Straus explained to Conley, the land needed to produce higher value crops and foods to be profitable and therefore stay farmland. Conley needed to find a way for the farmers to make money, and she also wanted to inject an element of fun.
“We just thought [the solution] could be cheese, because we already had such a great dairy community and such skilled farmers and farmhands. So making cheese was the logical thing,” she says. Conley convinced Smith, with whom she’d kept in touch over the years, to join her in the endeavor. “Peggy and I thought cheesemaking could help get the next generation going.”
Conley and Smith were not the original pioneering women in the area to see the profitability of dairy — it’s said that a local woman named Clara Steele roped wild Spanish cattle in the area to make cheese starting in 1857 — but they had a modern farm-to-sandwich vision. When the duo first opened the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station in 1997, it was a retail store where visitors could order lunch and peruse the cheese counter fully stocked with locally made items. “We were hoping that by the time they walked all the way through the space,” Conley says, “they would understand the connection between the beautiful pastures of our area and the food that they got at the end.”
Smith and Conley weren’t yet making their own cheeses, though. The barn that holds the heart and soul of Cowgirl Creamery was initially the headquarters of Tomales Bay Foods, their distribution company. “We had started to promote the cheeses of our region because there were three or four really good ones,” says Conley. “The Strauses had started to make butter, and so we put all of these local cheeses together and we formed a small marketing company to promote them as a group, so the public would identify our historic dairy region with high-quality cheeses and dairy products. When we started making cheese, it just became the fourth local cheese in our group.”
As chefs, Smith and Conley didn’t initially think cheesemaking would be that different from cooking. “We started with very simple cheeses,” says Conley. “And then as we got more confident, they got more complicated and we experimented with different styles.” Their classic award-winning cheeses include Mt Tam, a popular triple-cream stunner made from Straus Family organic milk, and Wagon Wheel, a nutty, aged cheese that Conley describes as “a great melting cheese that is good for cooking. We use it in our grilled cheese sandwiches.”
Seasonal specialties include Devil’s Gulch, a semifirm cheese punctuated with pepper flakes, and St Pat, which is made with whole organic milk from the Chileno Valley Jersey Dairy in Petaluma, California, and given a tight coat of bottle-green nettles to age. These cheeses, and many more, can be found at the original shop in Point Reyes Station and at Cowgirl Creamery outposts throughout the Bay Area, as well as at specialty stores across the United States.
To keep up with demand, Cowgirl Creamery now employs approximately 100 people and works with 50 artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in the United States, as well as with a handful of traditional cheesemakers from Great Britain and Europe. It’s a far cry from the original six staffers and four area cheesemakers, but as Conley points out, “Cheese takes many, many hands.”
Thanks to the influence of the cowgirls, more and more people are trying their hands at cheesemaking every day. “People are watching and saying, ‘Yeah, this can work. This is something I want to do,’ ” Conley says. “And there’s also been a higher level of career cheesemakers and cheesemongers, the people who sell the cheese. There are many young people that are going into this as a career, as a vocation, and so that’s a big change. There’s more education. There’s opportunity to learn as an apprentice.” Universities are also offering courses in small-production cheesemaking. “When we started,” Conley explains, “it was all about the industrialization of cheese — how to make it cheaper and how to make a lot of cheese inexpensively. That was the trend in education at the ag schools. It’s really different now.”
This trailblazing is evident anywhere cows, sheep, and goats can be raised. Because unlike grapes, and therefore wine, which has a finicky nature, milk can be produced locally in most areas. “It’s important for our customers, if they’re not from our area, to look when they get back home at what’s happening in their own communities and get out and try the cheeses. Get out to the farmers market and see what’s going on. It’s pretty exciting all over the country that this is happening.”
As for the Cowgirl Creamery, Conley and Smith credit some of their success to a catchy name, and of course to the unique nature of their local dairy supply. Conley says the name was inspired by a cowgirl who hitched her horse to a post outside the Point Reyes bank while Conley, Smith, and Straus watched.
“I think by naming our business Cowgirl Creamery, already people like that image of a cowgirl,” Conley says. “It gives an image of adventure and kind of [an] upbeat personality, and I think that people are drawn to that. Cheese, when it’s handmade and it’s packaged beautifully, it’s sometimes intimidating. If we had a French name or a fancy name, it would not be so approachable. That spirit of the cowgirl and the West is something that is very friendly and approachable, and it’s the reason why people come in the door.”
From the March 2014 issue.