For cheese lovers and curd nerds alike, Cowgirl Creamery is a destination on the California cheese trail. Founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith have come a long way since they opened in the mid-90’s with a mission to help get West Marin cheeses into the Bay Area’s best restaurants. It all began with a delivery vehicle called Tomales Bay Foods. When they converted a former hay barn into a cheesemaking facility and cheese shop, Cowgirl Creamery was officially born.
Now their award-winning cheeses like the buttery, crowd-pleasing Mt Tam and the stinky, washed-rind Red Hawk are sold in over 500 stores country-wide, and Tomales Bay Foods delivers over 200 cheeses across the Bay and Los Angeles area. They even have a location in San Francisco’s beautiful Ferry Building, complete with a café offering grilled cheese, beverage pairings, and even sweet treats.
We sat down with certified cheese professional Hilary Green, cheesemonger at the Point Reyes location, for the inside scoop on what goes on behind the scenes at this famous California cheese shop.
culture: What do you think sets you guys apart from the other shops in the area?
Hilary Green: It’s a piece of artisan cheese history. We talk about the Cowgirl story, how Peg and Sue were focused on sustainability and high-quality dairy here in Marin County, and also about that sense of community with other local cheesemakers. It’s that sort of ethos that all of us mongers are really into.
Our shop at Point Reyes is full of a bunch of passionate people: People who are really into the mission and the cheese. If you’re coming to Cowgirl Creamery for a job, you are a big cheese nerd. We try to promote that appreciation for what it took to build the place that we’re employed in. Also, the cheese counter overlooking the facility is pretty unique. We are a cheese shop in the same building as a production facility, where we produce Red Hawk. You can’t get any more local than this because it is made right there.
culture: What do you think is the most interesting cheese that you guys carry?
HG: Anything by Crown Finish Caves. We just started distributing them and it’s kind of a celebration when their stuff comes into the shop. Last week, we got in a wheel of Bufarolo. As soon as we finished selling through that, we cut into and started selling their washed Bufarolo. Tasting the difference and having them side by side was a lot of fun. I’m just amazed by the fact that we can get a water buffalo cheese shipped in from Italy and then these artisans in Brooklyn are aging them in a cave under the street.
culture: Do you guys mostly carry domestic cheeses?
HG: We have a major focus on artisan American, and then we do have some of the big hitters like L’Amuse Gouda, Valserena Parmesan Reggiano, and some Gruyere.
culture: What’s your artistic approach when building a cheese plate?
HG: Bounty, I want it to look full and appetizing. A lot of cheese plates can be really gorgeous, but it’s tough for a customer to know how to dive into that. In my approach, the cheese isn’t overburdened by other items on the plate. For me, it’s a balance of practicality and looking attractive. The world of cheese is just so aesthetically beautiful, but for people who aren’t connoisseurs, there’s this idea that it’s intimidating.
culture: What is the weirdest pairing you’ve tried?
HG: The whole idea of pairing tea and cheese. I don’t know that it’s weird, but it definitely opened my eyes to different possibilities. Washed rind and rooibos is an interesting mix. The rooibos is a little sweet and woody so when I paired it with Von Trapp’s Oma, there was something in there between the nutty washed rind and this earthy, tea. It was pretty good.
culture: In your personal opinion, do you prefer bread or crackers on a cheese plate?
HG: Bread. I’m always a bread person. I like crusty baguettes. If you slice it thin enough, it’s a much richer mouthfeel than a dry cracker.
culture: What do you tell people who have never been to your shop before?
HG: For me, it’s about giving them an awareness of the great dairy agriculture community around them. I really want our guests to understand there’s much more to the Point Reyes area than amazing views, great hiking, beaches. It’s a part of food history in our region. For me, that’s our mission behind the counter.
But then I just like people to feel welcome too. One of the major things that I see in guests when they come to the counter is this preface of saying “Well, I don’t know anything about cheese” or “I’m no cheese expert”. But you’re here to try something that’s new and really delicious. Even if you don’t have a huge knowledge, revel in the fact that you’re trying something interesting. Take the time to think about what it is, where it comes from, and what type of milk it is, and just enjoy the entirety of the product. And don’t be intimidated.
culture: Last question: what do you think the most common misconception about cheese is?
HG: That it can’t be enjoyed by everyone. Or that it takes a degree or a certain level of knowledge to really enjoy it. People don’t really think of it as a part of everyday life. I’m inspired by a lot of people who I’d consider to be cheese mentors, like this guy named Ziggy who I worked with at Paradise Market. He’d talk about how he would have a piece of cheese for breakfast or read about how Max McCalman likes three ounces of cheese for a meal. It can be integrated into your everyday life so easily – it is such a staple. Cheese is life.
Photos Courtesy of Cowgirl Creamery