An Insider's Guide to Cowgirl Creamery
By: Lauren Sloss, Photos by Alice Cho, Designed by Wes Rowe
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
It’s my most dreaded would-you-rather question. Which would you rather give up, forever: cheese or sex? Quite simply, cheese is one of my most important foods, ever. I am powerless over it. I will keep eating plates of it until I’m clutching my belly.
It’s not a bad way to live, especially around these parts. In addition to plenty of fancy grocery stores, the Bay Area is home to what must be one of the greatest American cheese producers of them all: Cowgirl Creamery.
I’d spent all kinds of time lurking around the Ferry Building shop, but what kind of true cheese obsessive would I be if I didn’t go seeking the source? For Cowgirl Creamery, that’s just a short drive up the coast to Point Reyes Station.
While Cowgirl has seen a major expansion since starting in 1990, with a Petaluma location that houses much of its cheese production and the bustling Ferry Building shop, Point Reyes is where Cowgirl got its start. You can still find a café and shop there, where a bevy of knowledgeable cheesemongers are slinging their creamy, delicious dairy products.
I’m looking around wild-eyed at all those goodies when I find Michael Zilber, the manager at the Point Reyes Station shop. He tells me the original Cowgirls, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, didn’t exactly come from a cheesemaking background. The two had vagabonded around the country in 1976 after college, landing in the Bay Area and right into the lauded, just-blossoming organic food scene: Peggy at Chez Panisse, and Sue at Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley.
They moved in on Point Reyes in 1990, with the original intention of showcasing and selling the area’s local organic products. The Point Reyes space was a working hay barn, from which Sue and Peggy ran Tomales Bay Food, a distribution service, when they noticed a gaping hole in cheese production.
“Marin French Cheese Company was the only cheesemaker in Marin,” Michael tells me. Now, 16 years later after Cowgirl launched, it’s among over two dozen spots listed on the West Marin-Sonoma Cheese Trail. The Point Reyes Shop is pretty much a lovefest of local producers, too, with everything from Tcho chocolates to Achadinha cheese alongside Cowgirl’s offerings.
But I’m here for the cheese. Cowgirl started by making simple, fresh varieties (crème fraîche, cottage cheese) and soon expanded into aged, creamy-rinded cheese, and its first aged hard cheese – Wagon Wheel.
From the classic Mt. Tam to rotating seasonal selections, Cowgirl makes a cheese for every palate. I had Michael walk me through its current offerings (from freshest to most aged), and suggest the best pairings for each kind.
“This is the simplest of the cheeses,” Michael says of this classic, creamy crème fraîche. “And it can go well past the sell-by date. It will just get more sour, tangier, and thicker.” Cowgirl’s crème fraîche is exemplary – the sourness is deep without being overwhelming; the thick creaminess is rich without being mouth coating.
Pairings: “Use this any way you would use sour cream,” Michael says. At Cowgirl, it’s often used in soups (its most excellent tomato soup, for one), or dolloped atop summer berries with a sprinkle of brown sugar. You can also try it with caviar, such as Tsar Nicoulai Caviar’s sustainable white sturgeon caviar, available online.
With a texture similar to cream cheese, Cowgirl’s fromage blanc has crème fraîche mixed into it, lending it a similar tanginess. Far smoother on the palate than a traditional cream cheese, Michael notes that often herbs like dill and tarragon with lemon are mixed in for a delicately flavored sandwich spread. Another decadent option: a cheesecake made with fromage blanc, crème fraîche, mascarpone, ricotta, and a little lemon.
Pairings: Michael recommends spreading the fromage blanc on chocolate shortbread with a squeeze of lemon. You can’t go wrong with Kika’s Treats Cocoa Nib Chocolate Shortbread, or mix up your flavors even more with Clairesquares' dark chocolate caramel shortbread.
“This was the first cheese Sue ever made, and it’s the one she’s most proud of,” Michael says of Cowgirl’s cottage cheese, made in the traditional style with nonfat milk. The melty curds are given a tangy base, thanks to the addition of crème fraîche. The cottage cheese is a great substitute for ricotta; Michael recommends stirring it into a marinara sauce for a creamy, rich tomato sauce.
Pairings: Michael and his team often dip potato chips into the cottage cheese, terming it “the cheesemaker’s snack.” Spice Kit’s lotus chips are a nice salty fusion alternative, while Old World Food Truck’s homemade potato chips, topped with vinegar, salt, and a dusting of smoked paprika, would make for perfect dipping.
The first aged cheese Cowgirl produced, Mt. Tam came from a collaboration between Sue and Fons Smith, a Dutch dairy scientist. Their combined techniques led to a “true American original,” as Michael describes it, noting the cheese’s white mushroom earthiness.
Pairings: He mentions that his wife often makes a “baked Mt. Tam” for special occasions, which is basically baked brie x 1,000, but notes that a good California sparkling wine is an ideal match for this cheese. “The bubbles cut through the fat, and help spread it,” he explains. Michael recommends the Pt. Reyes Blanc de Blanc – in addition to its chardonnay base, I love the idea of a Point Reyes double whammy.
The one cheese still made in Point Reyes, Red Hawk was the result of a mistake gone very right. A batch of Mt. Tam wasn’t aging the way it should, so Sue threw it in some Tupperware and stuck it in the aging room. She proceeded to forget about it for two weeks, then opened the container to be nearly knocked out by the bloomy smell of the rind, which had turned a rusty red shade.
Red Hawk is made in Point Reyes because it has to be: There’s a prevalence of a certain kind of bacteria in the air there that creates the cheese’s red hue and incredible, pungent flavor. The rind has more bite than the Mt. Tam – it balances out the creamy richness of the interior, while still maintaining its luscious texture and flavor.
Pairings: In addition to being a stellar dessert cheese (Michael recommends topping it with membrillo, or quince paste) and mac ’n’ cheese filler (aggressive, but awesome), he cites the two approaches to pairing with Red Hawk. A complementary pairing is “a really hoppy IPA, the bitter grapefruit notes match up,” he says. A contrasting pairing is “a true sauterne dessert wine” like Oro Puro – it’s for sale in the Point Reyes Shop. As for a good IPA, it’s hard to beat Speakeasy’s Big Daddy IPA.
Cowgirl has four seasonal cheeses and the winter one is Devil’s Gulch. This is the second year Cowgirl has produced this variety, coated in All Star Organics’ sweet and spicy pepper flakes. Michael notes the fruitiness of this cheese as an important pairing consideration, along with the spicy kick of the pepper.
Pairings: Michael highly recommends sampling Devil’s Gulch with Nana Mae’s Gravenstein Apple, Raisin and Fig Mostarda, produced by the team from The Girl and the Fig in Sonoma. The spread is available at the Point Reyes and Ferry Building shops, and at Bi-Rite Grocery. In addition to Nana Mae’s, I love the tangy sweetness of Oakville Grocery’s black cherry mustard.
Cowgirl’s first hard variety, Wagon Wheel, was created at the request of Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café, who wanted a good melting cheese for her pizzas. Based on an apressado (pressed) recipe for a young Asiago, Wagon Wheel has notes of Gouda and Gruyère, and is an utterly addictive snacking cheese.
Pairings: Per Michael’s suggestions, there really isn’t anything this cheese won’t go well with. Use it for homemade pizza or for a burger topping; put it in your mac ’n’ cheese or eat it by the slice. Great melting cheese like this is calling out for great bread: Slice up a loaf of Josey Baker’s whole wheat sourdough and make yourself a grilled cheese for the ages.
As cute as cheeses come, this little buddy is made in very small batches, and is pretty much only available in Point Reyes or at the Ferry Building. With a texture similar to a goat cheese but with the tangy funk of cow’s milk, Michael describes this as “a perfect hiking cheese.” He advises you to “treat it like a goat cheese.” Pairing Inverness with figs (when they’re in season) or honey is a sure bet. Marshall’s Farm honey has a wonderful flavor, and would bring out the creamy tang of Inverness perfectly.
Final cheesemonger tips: In case you don’t take down your entire cheese plate in one go, Michael recommends wrapping your cheese in parchment or wax in Tupperware. “Cheese needs to breath,” he explains. “Once you break the rind, it stops the aging process.”
Segregate your blues, try to consume whatever you purchase in a week, and don’t keep your cheese on the door of your refrigerator. “It’s the worst place, the temperature is changing and it gets dry. The vegetable crisper is the best.”
Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station is open Wednesday to Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. In addition to eating your face off, you can also take a tour of its operation. In San Francisco, you can always find Cowgirl’s cheeses at the Ferry Building, along with all kinds of tasty edibles at Sidekick, the next-door café.
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