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Great Mistakes: Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk

Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk

Red Hawk is the best mistake we’ve ever made. Sue made the first batch of Red Hawk [in 2001] while trying to correct a flaw on the rind of a Mt Tam. Ordinarily, Mt Tam begins to develop a nice, fluffy, white Penicillium candidum fuzz within four or five days. When Sue went to turn the cheese, it was bald and mottled. She looked more closely and found that cheese mites had jumped off the Stilton that was also in the aging room, had landed on Mt Tam, and were inhibiting the mold’s growth.

Sue re-inoculated the rind by spraying it with a solution of candidum mold and water, but instead of encouraging the bloomy growth, the treatment killed the mold, allowing wild B. linens to take over. B. linens is a beneficial bacterium often found on cheese rinds. This rind was a light pink color and sticky to the touch. Sue was so upset that she plopped the cheese on the bottom rack, walked off, and promptly forgot all about it.

Three weeks later, Kate Arding, who had come from Neal’s Yard Dairy to help us set up “a proper cheese counter” (you may want to say that out loud with a British accent), discovered the cheese Sue had abandoned. The cheese had continued to ripen and develop strong aromas. Kate cut open one of the cheeses, marveled at the gooey texture, and tasted it. Kate was so excited she ran out of the aging room to find us. “This is the best cheese you’ve ever made,” she told us. “It’s rich and savory, almost meaty in flavor with perhaps a hint of anchovies and lemon. It has such a long, sweet-cream finish. Can you do it again?”

After much discussion, tasting, and research, we realized that we had inadvertently created a washed-rind cheese with an aroma that was almost alarmingly strong but with flavors that were seductively mellow. The B. linens is the dominant bacterium that cheesemakers use to wash the rinds of big-flavored cheeses such as Taleggio and Vacherin. This family of molds thrives in cool, humid climates and grows even faster when salt is introduced, so the Point Reyes environment is ideal for the cultivation of these bacteria. While most cheesemakers have to inoculate the rind with B. linens, we don’t need to. Where we live it’s wild and grows everywhere, so over time we were able to replicate our mistake.

In 2003, Red Hawk was judged the Best of Show at the annual American Cheese Society competition. It was the first time a washed-rind cheese had ever won the contest.

Excerpted from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks (Chronicle Books, October 2013)

Feature Photo Credit: Sara Remington

Sue Conley and Peggy Smith

Sue Conley and Peggy Smith are the founders of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, Calif.