Chow Town

January 3, 2014

Cowgirl Creamery makes cheeses that leave lasting impression

I’m not really sure when I first tried a Cowgirl Creamery cheese — it was likely the late 90’s, but I can’t quite seem to pin it down in my mind with any accuracy.

Chow Town

The daily dish on Kansas City's food and drink scene

I’m not really sure when I first tried a Cowgirl Creamery cheese — it was likely the late 90’s, but I can’t quite seem to pin it down in my mind with any accuracy.

This much I do remember, though, that cheese, whatever it was, and whenever I had it, left an impression, a very positive impression.

That wasn’t often said of domestic cheeses up until the last 10 to 15 years or so. Before then, most American cheese was made in an industrial manner — massive blocks of nondescript cheese labeled Cheddar, Gouda, or Swiss.

It really didn’t matter what the label said as the cheese inside the package often bore little resemblance to the name on the outside. It was much like those giant jugs of wine with names like Burgundy and Chablis splashed across the front. Burgundy? Chablis? I think not. Cheddar? Swiss? Really? I’ll pass.

Much has changed on the U.S. cheese front since those dark, rubbery, flavorless days. Great, or at least really good, cheese is made all over the place. We’ve got some nice cheese makers right here in the metropolitan area and I’ve had some lovely cheese out of neighboring Iowa.

But, even though I’m a loyal Midwest guy, from what I’ve tasted, California cheeses lead the way. At the head of the pack, in my humble opinion, is Cowgirl Creamery.

Cowgirl Creamery is the story of two friends, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith. The pair took a trip to San Francisco in 1976 after finishing degrees at the University of Tennessee.

Both established long-running culinary careers. Smith spent 17 years at Alice Water’s gastronomic temple, Chez Panisse. Conley co-owned Bette’s Oceanview Diner. Both establishments were in Berkeley in the East Bay.

In the early 90’s, Conley and Smith changed their career direction, and ultimately, the direction of American cheese making. In a small town about an hour north of San Francisco, the pair started Tomales Bay Foods. Their aim was to market product from local farms and dairies to Bay Area chefs. Their first location featured a small cheese making room at the entrance to the building. A cheese making business was born.

So, what of the name? Well, according to their website, there is this version:

When Peggy and Sue were exploring names for their budding cheese business, two women on horseback pulled up in front of the barn, hitched their horses to the bike rack and ran into the grocery store for supplies.

Ellen Straus, who was visiting at the time, looked at Sue and Peggy and said, “We’re living in the Wild West out here.”

Smith’s response: “Then we must be cowgirls! And this must be the Cowgirl Creamery.”

That was two decades, two creameries, four retail stores and 2,000 tons of cheese ago. These days, Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are sold to more than 500 stores, including both Better Cheddars and Whole Foods here in Kansas City, as well as other independent cheese shops, farmers markets, and restaurants.

Conley and Smith have also written the book on cooking with cheese. Their book, “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks,” has just been released, and is available nationwide.

As for their cheese selection, Cowgirl Creamery makes eight aged and two fresh cheeses. I had the chance to try two of their most popular before writing this up, the Mount Tam and Red Hawk.

Mount Tam, named for Northern California’s Mount Tamalpais, is made from fresh organic milk. It is a triple cream cheese and was Cowgirl’s first aged offering. It’s amazingly creamy and complex and perfectly balanced. California Chardonnay anyone?

The Red Hawk, in the meantime, is another triple cream cheese. It’s bigger and bolder than the Mount Tam, in part I’m sure because of the native wild bacteria used in the cheese making process. The native bacteria means Cowgirl could not make this cheese anywhere else.

The Red Hawk is aged for four weeks and features strong aromas and rich, ripe flavors. Like all Cowgirl cheeses, though, big doesn’t mean monolithic. Nothing in the Mount Tam or Red Hawk is out of whack.

The flavors, aromas, and textures all work in concert to produce a perfectly balanced cheese experience, the experience of partners and friends, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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