Springtime comes early in Marin and Sonoma counties. February in this part of Northern California typically ushers in rain and warm temperatures, keeping grassy pastures bright green and signaling the wild mustard and chicory to bloom. Nettles “as big as your hand” sprout beneath the redwoods and in creek beds along the coast, says Cowgirl Creamery lead cheesemaker Eric Patterson.
It’s only fitting, then, that leaves from the large plant are wrapped around Cowgirl Creamery’s springtime Jersey cow’s milk round, St Pat (one of the company’s four seasonal cheeses). The Point Reyes–based creamery, best known for its triple-cream Mt. Tam and washed-rind Red Hawk, turns out 338,000 pounds of cheese per year—1,300 of which are nettle-encased St Pat. Like the other seasonal wheels, it’s on the market for roughly three months before the weather changes and the next one gets a go.
These cheeses have the same base, but are wrapped in or dusted with ingredients that speak to the landscape and the time of year—shiitake mushrooms, summer savory, and black pepper in fall; field flowers, chamomile, calendula, and Thai basil in summer; and ground heirloom peppers in winter.
The recipes reflect the local ethos that has always guided Cowgirl Creamery founders, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith (from Maryland and Virginia, respectively). The University of Tennessee alums set out for the West Coast upon graduation and haven’t looked back. From their arrival in 1976 and into the 1990s, they built careers in two pillars of the Bay Area food world: Smith as a cook and manager at Berkeley’s legendary Chez Panisse and Conley as a co-owner of Bette’s Oceanview Diner, also in Berkeley.
In 1989, after 11 years at the diner, Conley moved north to Point Reyes in search of a slower pace. She immersed herself in the area’s budding organic farming scene and started building relationships that led her to found Tomales Bay Foods—the food marketing and distribution arm of Cowgirl Creamery—in 1994.
Cow Country Revival
Just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma counties have long been cow country. Dairying was an early economic engine in the area during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. In the 1860s the windswept Point Reyes peninsula was the country’s top dairy region, providing booming San Francisco with milk, butter, and cheese, according to the California Milk Advisory Board. The climate is damp and mild—perfect for pasture and, in turn, grass-munching animals. “If there isn’t rain, there’s fog,” Conley says.
Over the years, though, as California continued to establish itself as one of the country’s leaders in milk and cheese production, smaller grass-based outfits struggled to compete with the mega-dairies, often with thousands of cows, that started dotting the state. When Conley moved to Northern California, fluid milk prices were plummeting and small-scale farms in the region were in peril, says Janet Fletcher, writer and publisher of the newsletter Planet Cheese. “Sue Conley saw these dairy farms struggling and wanted to find a way to make them more viable,” Fletcher says.
Some of the first people Conley encountered in Marin were Bill and Ellen Straus, who had been farming in Marshall on the northeast shore of Tomales Bay since the 1940s. Their eldest son, Albert, was transitioning the farm to organic, and Conley helped him find buyers for the farm’s newly certified milk. A few years later, Conley and the Strauses went into business together. In 1996, Peggy Smith joined Conley in Point Reyes to renovate the barn that now houses Cowgirl Creamery, and in 1997 the duo began using Straus Family Creamery milk to make Mt. Tam, the decadent cheese that put them on the map.
Expanding the Herd
Twenty years later, the creamery keeps growing—and partnering with neighbors to protect and promote local agriculture. In 2007, Smith and Conley met John Taverna, a Petaluma farmer who had recently transformed his Chileno Valley Jersey Dairy to an organic operation. When the recession hit, Taverna couldn’t find customers willing to pay the higher prices for his new products, so a relative called Cowgirl Creamery on his behalf with the hopes that Conley and Smith might purchase the milk. They agreed.
“Since the milk was 100 percent Jersey and the cows were 100 percent pastured, we decided to use it in our seasonal cheeses to see how the flavors changed over the course of the year,” Conley says.
In spring, the cows eat plenty of fast-growing grass and produce a glut of milk, explains Patterson, the cheesemaker. However, during this rainy season the grass is full of water and less nutrient-dense, resulting in milk that is lighter and more buoyant, with fewer fat particles and other solids.
It’s the ideal milk for making St Pat (named for St. Patrick’s Day, which falls around the time of year the cheese is released), Patterson says. With less fat to weigh down the milk, it acidifies more easily than the richer summer and winter milks. “The curds behave well,” says Patterson, meaning that milk proteins come together to make a tight curd that maintains its structure in the vat. When curds are cut, that structure allows the whey to separate cleanly and consistently from the curds. This bodes well for the final moisture level and texture of the cheese, making for a light, fluffy paste.
The milk’s acidity also affects St Pat’s flavor. “It has a lemony brightness you don’t taste in the fall and winter cheeses,” Patterson says.
Once the curds are formed, brined, and aged for 12 to 14 days, St Pat’s exterior is sprayed with Essensia from California’s Quady Winery. The dessert wine, made from muscat grapes, lends a touch of sweetness to the cheese and helps adhere the nettles to the rind. Cheesemakers then apply the leaves directly to the cheese’s surface, wrap it for sale, and send it to a walk-in cooler for another two to four weeks, where it starts developing the nuanced flavors it’s known for, Patterson says. St Pat is a friendly cheese—buttery with vegetal, pleasantly bitter notes from the nettles. It’s also visually striking, with a snow-white bloomy rind peeking through the deep-green leaves wrapped around its exterior.
At Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, St Pat is the top seller of Cowgirl’s seasonal cheeses, according to buyer Gordon Edgar. “When St Pat hits our counter,” he says, “there’s a seasonal excitement similar to what we get for [Uplands Cheese Co.] Rush Creek, [Jasper Hill Farm] Winnimere, or short-lived seasonal produce like fiddleheads and ramps.”
Edgar, who grew up in Marin and has purchased cheese from Smith and Conley since they started making Mt. Tam, remembers the food community’s excitement when Tomales Bay Foods started. “They ushered in this whole cheese renaissance we’re seeing now,” he says.
Indeed, Cowgirl Creamery’s success—and its loyal partnerships with area farms—has encouraged other farmers to follow suit and for young people to choose farming as an occupation, Conley says. Today, the region is a destination, with the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail listing 27 different cheesemakers and creameries.
“The Cowgirls really helped make a coherent story about Northern California land, agriculture, and dairying traditions,” Edgar adds. Lucky for us, it’s a tale we