In this blog series intern Briana finds artisan cheesemakers from six regions around the country that represent our cheese nation. Venture along the ride as she goes coast to coast, discovering what makes the U.S. home to great artisan cheese. Read on and find out how you can win a subscription!
Welcome to the wild, wild west
Although the gold may be long gone, treasures of the West can still be found anywhere you look. From Seattle to San Diego, we have the West Coast to thank for a lot of our food trends (can you say organic?) There’s an insurgence of high-quality products, particularly in Northern California, where the chilly temperatures give way to a bounty of good food. This includes a recent boom in wonderful locally made cheese.
California started the goat cheese trend in 1979 when Laura Chenel launched Laura Chenel’s Chèvre in Sonoma County. From then on, artisan cheesemakers began to pop up. The array of creameries has even warranted an app that takes you on a trip along the California Cheese Trail. In the land of “natural” and “organic,” Northern California now comfortably sits at the top of the artisan cheese scene. And perhaps no one does it better than Cowgirl Creamery.
2 chefs, 1 great cheese company
Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, former chefs at Chez Panisse and Bette’s Oceanview Diner respectively, stumbled upon a cheesemaking room and the rest is history. In a small town in coastal Marin County, the cowgirls began making cheese in 1997, when they discovered a cheesemaking room in their renovated hay barn. There, blessed with cool temperatures and fertile land, they decided to make fresh cheese. Conley and Smith are cowgirls themselves, eschewing the fancy restaurant scene for a more rural setting. Cowgirl’s all-organic cheeses reflect the natural, sea-kissed vibe of Marin. Each cheese to come from Cowgirl is California-made; it’s all local, all the time, with a focus on quality and seasonality.
Vivien Straus of Cowgirl Creamery says they’re lucky to have such great weather in Northern California. Mild year-long temperatures means good product for all seasons. “It’s not too hot, it’s not too cold,” she says. When asked about what makes Northern California a great region for cheese, Straus says it’s the grass and salty air that makes the milk so good, and in turn, the cheese. “It’s all about the milk…the cheese reflects the specific milk we use.”
While local milk may be the key factor to Cowgirl’s success, seasonality is also what makes their cheese so special. For each of their four seasonal cheeses, they use local herbs and spices to flavor the cheese. For summer, the Pierce Pt. is washed in Muscato wine, then rolled in citrus and wildflowers.
Mt. Tam, accessible decadence
Yet Cowgirl also maintains cheese year round. Their first aged cheese, Mt. Tam, has become their most popular product. Named after Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, Mt. Tam is the epitome of decadence. The triple-cream, cow’s milk cheese is made from unblended organic milk from Straus Family Dairy. It’s soft-ripened and very dense, with earthy notes of mushroom.
Owner Peggy Smith says the inspiration for Mt. Tam was “to make a cheese that was really accessible for people, and to showcase the milk.”
A true sticky-fingers cheese, it only needs to be smeared on bread and eaten. It would also make an incredible sauce for pasta. Mt. Tam is the basis for their Red Hawk, a more pungent cheese with a washed rind.
Coupled with a picturesque setting and great cheese, Cowgirl Creamery serves as the standard for artisanal cheese in the US. And in the words of many a Northern Californian, it’s hella good.