California. Cowgirl Creamery
I have to thank the farmers’ market in San Francisco’s Ferry Building for falling in love with the Cowgirl Creamery, which I visited for the first time in August 2012 on an early, foggy morning. Dressed in many layers of clothing to peel off during the day (that’s what you do in San Francisco), with empty stomachs, and quite quietly (it was only 8:00), we walked along Market Street to the Saturday market. It is one of the busiest and most delicious markets I have ever visited, and believe me – I have been in many, maybe even too many. We picked up coffee on the way to the Ferry Building (which was a mistake because the market had many opportunities to get much better coffee). In an hour and a half, I had walked through the outdoor market and tried all 20 varieties of peaches, several types of apples, and eight different types of figs when I understood that it was time to eat. I couldn’t resist buying a pound of colourful figs, but what next? The answer was right next to me – the Cowgirl Creamery shop and a bowl of freshly made ricotta. Breakfast was obvious – fresh ricotta with figs, fresh bread, and cured meat. I remember how that ricotta brought back memories of our trip through the mountains of Umbria, where we enjoyed a bowl of fresh ricotta drizzled with honey in a small town, sitting on top of a mountain, wrapped in warm blankets. Like a fairy tale. And now I was experiencing something similar, sitting in the sun, listening to music, and looking out onto the Bay Bridge and San Francisco Bay.
I fell in love with Red Hawk cheese, and this love grew stronger thanks to our Sonoma friends Marci and Roger. Cowgirl Creamery offered this cheese, and (hand on heart) I can say that every single cheese in the shop was heavenly, but Red Hawk was indescribable. Creamy, buttery, mild, silky, and sweet – it was so balanced that each little bit just melted in my mouth. I needed nothing else. Well – maybe bread and wine and the company of friends.
I returned to northern California four years later and my thoughts about the place had not changed. Red Hawk still enthralled me, but I was quite surprised when I travelled to Point Reyes Station, the site of their first dairy, which is now devoted entirely to the making of Red Hawk cheese – this cheese likes to be exclusive and ripen on its own. As happens in many recipes, dishes, and other good things, this cheese came to be unexpectedly during the cheese making process. An unexpected result that has made tasting any Cowgirl Creamery cheese a deliciously dangerous experience. There is something about their cheese… something that stays with you and makes you keep coming back for more to enjoy on its own or to add to various recipes. It is a cheese that heightens the other senses of life – those that are special and quite “cheesy”.
Perhaps this is because the cheese is prepared from organic milk or maybe because it’s a small artisan endeavor or maybe it is because the people who work here are in love with what they do or maybe it is a combination of all these things, and more. Perhaps it’s about the owners, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, and their life story that started in the days of the hippies and a trip to San Francisco after graduation from Tennessee University in 1976 (oh my – I wasn’t yet a glimmer in my parents’ eyes). On this trip, one of the two ended up at the famous Alice Waters’ restaurant Chez Panisse and the other at Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkley. Seventeen years later, both women decided to do something else (logically) and change their lives, which happened in the town of Point Reyes Station and where they founded Tomales Bay Foods, a company that helps local farmers and dairies to get their product to the region’s best restaurants. They opened a small shop with a cheese-making facility in small barn. The location had everything – good milk from the nearby Straus Family Creamery, an ideal location for aging cheese, passion, and luck – for starting the Cowgirl Creamery.
Almost 20 years later, it is now one of only several cheese preparation locations, and their cheese is available in 500 stores throughout California and the US, but they are still considered an artisan cheese-maker: they control each step of the process starting from cheese making to delivery to stores. The story of Cowgirl Creamery is about so much, but the main thing is milk, cheese, passion, and respect for yourself and the customer. It is a story about fantastic flavour that should be tried and enjoyed, if at all possible at the Point Reyes Station shop or the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Start with the cheese and then continue with all the other foods made from cheese. Plan to be there for a while, because although the food is simple, you will want to spend time slowly savouring everything.