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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today: We chat with the Cowgirls about their Wild West life. Prepare for cheese, cheese, and more cheese.
Sue Conley and Peggy Smith go way back. All the way to their freshman year of college, in fact, where they realized their mutual obsession with food and forged what would prove to be a lifelong friendship. Together they moved westward, kicking butt and taking culinary names as they went. After several years immersed in the local, homegrown food scene of the Bay Area they decided they were ready to step out on their own. And if you're going to step out, it should definitely be with cheese. These ladies know their dairy -- and their farmers -- and they share all in their new book: Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.
Today, we're chatting with this week's guest editors about the importance of knowing your farmer, the future of cheese in America, and all things dairy.
The first question is the most obvious: Why cheese? You both had very successful careers in the restaurant business before deciding to start Cowgirl Creamery. Was cheesemaking a long-time goal?
Cheesemaking wasn’t a long-time goal but there was more thought involved than “why not.” When Sue moved to Point Reyes Station and met the Straus family, Ellen Straus inspired us to help promote the agricultural products of our region, starting with making cheese from Straus dairy milk. Both of us have always loved cheese, and we’d learned about the process of cheesemaking from travels in France and England years earlier. Our friends at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London and Jean d’Alos in Bordeaux helped train our palates and senses but we were really compelled by the thought of contributing to West Marin’s agricultural region, and to being part of an appellation in a way that might help long-time farmers and dairies stay in business.
More: Who knew cheese could be so sweet?
How do you think the farm-to-table movement has shaped the way you make, and look at, cheese today?
Peggy developed solid relationships with farmers while she was at Chez Panisse, learning to forage from their fields just as Sue developed relationships with her suppliers at Bette’s Ocean View Diner. The farm-to-table movement, which has always been alive in rural enclaves, centers around relationships, and this is true of our cheese too. We are long-time friends with the dairies who supply us with milk, we’re friends with the people who grow the organic spices for our Devil’s Gulch or the mushrooms for our Chimney Rock cheese. But more than strong relationships with our farmers and dairies, the farm-to-table movement allows the people who enjoy our cheese to learn more about how we make it. We purposely created an open cheesemaking operation in Point Reyes, where visitors can watch the process through windows and understand how we work. This might be the biggest advantage of farm-to-table: that people have the opportunity to learn more if they like.
More: If you're feeling less traditional, this is a pretty great way to eat cheese too.
What's with the name? A reference to your frontier spirit, perhaps?
We certainly embody that American frontier spirit, as does just about every citizen of Point Reyes Station, the place where our cheese adventure began. This is a place where the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970's intersected with conservative ranchers and college professors from Berkeley. This is a place where new ideas are welcome and traditions are honored.
The name Cowgirl Creamery came to us one afternoon while we were standing in front of our barn, exchanging ideas with Ellen Straus. Across the street, a young woman was hitching her horse to a post in front of the bank, and Ellen remarked, “Ladies, we are in the wild west.” Sue said, “So we must be cowgirls and this must be the Cowgirl Creamery." And that was that.
More: Cheese snacks for your next dinner party. Or just yourself...
What's one recipe or concept from your cookbook that you think will surprise people, or change the way they think about dairy?
Both of us like the cheese course portion of the book because it shows how to present and taste cheese from a dozen different points of view. Some of these ideas are very simple -- such as using a “cheat sheet plate” with foods that bring out certain flavors in cheese. We’ve also gotten good reviews on our Parmesan Broth, which lets you make a hearty, flavorful broth from the end bits of cheese. This is a nice change of pace for people who don’t eat beef or chicken, and it’s especially good in Peggy’s Panade recipe.
In the past, France has been the undisputed master of high-class cheesemaking. Do you think this is starting to change? Why do you think it's important to make cheese in America?
Milking animals can be raised in almost any geography and cheese can be produced anywhere with a reliable, high-quality milk source. It is very difficult to make cheese with milk or curd from outside the area because the milk for cheesemaking should be as fresh as possible, ideally less than 48 hours old.
Over the past 20 years, American consumers have become more demanding in seeking out good quality cheeses and, in response, American cheesemakers have become more skilled at their craft. We continue to be inspired by European traditions but we’re also inspired by American cheesemakers who aren’t afraid to step outside these traditions to create very interesting and wonderful flavors.
And these days, European cheese companies are beginning to invest in American companies, just as our wineries attracted international investors in the 1980’s. These companies recognize that we want to “buy local and American,” so they benefit from having investment in our producers. In California, for example, Laura Chenel Chevre and Marin French Cheese have both been purchased by Rians Group, a French company. This has brought expertise and investment into our area that would have taken decades to attain
Please share any and all cheese comments, recipes, and opinions below!
Cheese puff photo by James Ransom, other recipe photos by Christopher Hirscheimer and Melissa Hamilton.