Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery have been blazing trails for more than 30 years. After moving West in the seventies, they immersed themselves in the Bay Area food revolution, Peggy in the kitchen at Chez Panisse and Sue at Fourth Street Grill and Bette’s Oceanview Diner. In the late 1980s, they decided to explore new frontiers in Marin, supporting farmers and producers directly and becoming pioneering cheese makers in the process.
In their new book, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks (Chronicle Books), the two cowgirls share their story, their knowledge of cheese, and some of their favorite recipes. We talked with Sue Conley about the book and how an old barn in Point Reyes helped spur a burgeoning artisan cheese movement.
CUESA: Can you tell us about your journey into the cheese business?
Sue Conley: I moved to Point Reyes in 1989, and almost the first day I was there I met Ellen Straus of Straus Family Creamery. Dairies were in danger at the time because we were so close to the city. Property values were really exploding, and developers had purchased much of the land. Ellen had helped start the Marin Agricultural Land Trust to enable farmers to sell their development rights and get cash to put back into their operation [by placing an agricultural easement on their property, preserving it in perpetuity]. It was a new idea, the first of its kind in the US.
Ellen had said that unless farmers do something that’s profitable and a little more fun than selling milk into the commodity market, they won’t want to farm, even if their land is set aside. They would need to do things like transition to organic or make value-added products. I said, “I’d love to help with that idea.” Her son, Albert, was just starting to transition his dairy to organic, and it became the first organic dairy in the West.
I bought a barn in Point Reyes, an old broken-down place. We were going to have art studios upstairs and a food business downstairs, a showcase for agricultural goods in our county. Peggy and I started working on a business plan to provide a direct market for the producers. Our first producer was Albert, and we knew a couple cheese makers in Sonoma who were just getting going at the time.
CUESA: How did you start making cheese?
SC: We thought that we should make our own fresh cheese, so that people could see the cheese being made when they walk in, and on the other end of the barn, they could have a cheese sandwich at a little deli. I made the cheese and Peggy did the cooking. We made cottage cheese, fromage blanc, and crème fraîche, and as we matured in our business and confidence, we made aged cheese. It takes a long time to develop a system, skills, and the staff to make great cheese, but we had the one important thing, and that was good milk. Even today, 90% of the milk in our cheese comes from Albert Straus’s farm.
When we started our company in 1997, no one would distribute our handmade cheese because it was fresh and fragile and expensive, so we had to buy a truck and deliver it ourselves. And since we were already going to restaurants and retailers in the city, we decided we should also bring the other cheeses we sold, so we became a distributor for these newly developing cheese businesses. Distribution became key to these dairy families feeling confident embarking on something new. That’s something we’re very proud of, and it’s as important to us as making great cheese.
CUESA: When you started making cheese, how did you find your niche?
SC: We tried to highlight the beautiful flavors in the milk we were using. That was something we learned from traveling to England, France, and Italy. The cheese makers there think about what the animals are eating, what breed the animal is, how the animal is cared for, what’s growing in the pasture, and how the pasture is cared for. Until you have all of that in line, you shouldn’t start to make cheese. That really stuck with us.
In our experiences traveling to France, England, and Italy, we saw that people can make very good livings on small production, specialty cheese. We drew inspiration from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London and Jean d’Alos in Bordeaux, France, and modeled our business after them. They sold cheese from other producers on the counter, but they made their own fresh cheese and yogurt. They really wanted to highlight the taste of the milk that was local to their place. That continues to be the niche that we fill at Cowgirl Creamery. We’re also certified organic, and there are very few certified organic cheese producers in the artisanal world.
CUESA: Can you say more about how sustainability fits into your business model?
SC: We buy milk that is from a sustainable farm with humane treatment of animals. We also believe in paying the people who work with us a fair wage, whether it’s a cheese monger, cheese maker, or a driver. Everybody in the company is committed to preserving sustainable agriculture in our region. It’s at the core of our mission.
CUESA: Why did you decide to write a book?
SC: Chronicle Books (which is owned by the family that also owns McEvoy Ranch, our neighbors and farmers in our county) had been after us for a while to do a book, but we didn’t feel that we were ready. Farming and cheese making are fragile economies, and we were encouraging farmers to do something that we weren’t yet sure would really work. We had seen it work in Europe, but we didn’t know if farmers here would be able to sustain themselves. We didn’t know if Albert would be successful in his organic venture, or if we would be able to pay our bills. Coming to the Ferry Building 10 years ago was a huge boost for us because it gave international exposure to our company and the other cheese makers. In the last five years, we’ve really been able to get ahead of our debt and investment from building the company from nothing. We didn’t want to write about that until we were sure that it would work, but now we think it does.
CUESA: What are you hoping readers will take away from the book?
SC: Hopefully, it’ll give you a general understanding of how cheese is made. The book is basically a narrative with recipes. We discuss the styles of cheeses in the order that we learned to make them, starting with the simplest fresh cheeses, then soft-ripened and mold-ripened cheeses, aged cheeses, grating cheeses, and blues. Each chapter has a description of how the cheese is made and how to cook with it. We also have a chapter on how to taste cheese and planning a cheese course. We talk a lot about milk, the different qualities of milk, and the milksheds that have been cheese-making clusters in the US. And we talk about why small cheese makers working together can make something that’s more interesting and successful than one big cheese company or lots of them scattered about. As it works in Europe, it works here, too.
You can find Cowgirl Creamery at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays and at their retail shop inside the Ferry Building seven days a week.
Cowgirl Creamery photography by Hirsheimer & Hamilton, reprinted with permission from Chronicle Books.
If you have beautiful lettuce that you’ve grown yourself or found in a farmers market, this might be the recipe to use. When Peggy finds exceptional lettuce, she thinks of Jean-Pierre Moullé, the chef at Chez Panisse, as well as our good friend Todd Koons.
A classically trained French chef, Jean-Pierre Moullé is a thoughtful, caring cook who shares his knowledge generously. His influence on a generation of cooks is far-reaching; many people who cook today have adopted his cooking style. The cooks who worked with Jean-Pierre perhaps loved best that Jean-Pierre always gave you (or his cooking) his entire attention and welcomed questions.
Jean-Pierre is an accomplished hunter and fisherman, but Peggy associates him with lettuce because of the delicate lettuces he harvested from his tiny garden in Berkeley. Peggy viewed it as an honor and a privilege when Jean-Pierre asked her to care for his garden while he went on vacation.
Jean-Pierre brought all of his lettuces to Chez Panisse; Todd Koons, at the age of nineteen, realized that California restaurants would buy many of the specialty lettuces that weren’t available in the United States at that time (unless you knew Jean-Pierre). Todd helped bring organic, field-grown heirloom lettuces to a wider market.
Jean-Pierre has changed much more than the type of lettuce we find in restaurants today. Peggy speaks for many cooks when she expresses gratitude for the many lessons Jean-Pierre taught—most important, always spend the time needed to do a task well and always appreciate the food on the plate, the wine in the glass, and the people around you.
3 tablespoon Champagne vinegar
1 small shallot, minced
1/2 ripe Fuyu persimmon, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped, juices reserved
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups fresh, beautiful greens (any combination of radicchio, speckled lettuce, Belgian endive, or escarole), washed and torn into pieces
1/2 ripe Fuyu persimmon, peeled, seeded, and chopped
4 slices Levain bread, cut slightly on the diagonal
4 tablespoons Mt Tam cheese (paste only, not the rind)
1. To make the vinaigrette: In a small bowl, pour the vinegar over the shallot. Let it sit for 10 minutes.
2. Whisk together the finely chopped persimmon and any juice with the shallot and Champagne vinegar. Whisk in the olive oil slowly, and continue whisking until it emulsifies. Add 1/4 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper, taste the vinaigrette, and decide if you’d like more salt and pepper.
3. When you’re just about ready to serve, dress the salad greens with the vinaigrette. Divide the dressed greens onto four salad plates and top with the persimmon chunks.
4. Very lightly toast the bread slices. You want them to be warm but still tender and not overly crisp. Spread 1 tablespoon of Mt Tam on each warm bread slice, set it on the plate beside the salad, and serve.
Recipe reprinted with permission of Chronicle Books. Photo from Cowgirl Creamery.