October 31, 2013

Cheese Pioneers: An Interview with Cowgirl Creamery

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 (pictured below, left) 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.

Try Winter Salad Greens with Persimmon Vinaigrette and Mt Tam from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.

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. Join the cowgirls for a book signing tomorrow from 2 to 4 pm at the shop.

Cowgirl Creamery photography by Hirsheimer & Hamilton, reprinted with permission from Chronicle Books.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »