After 10 years working in the dairy industry, I know a little more than the average bear about things dairy-related. But even I got an education in cheese when I visited Cowgirl Creamery for a tasting during my Fourth of July vacation to Point Reyes National Seashore in West Marin, CA. Happy Centennial, National Parks Service!
While founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith recently sold their beloved company to Emmi, little has changed in its Point Reyes outpost. I browsed the varieties of artisan cheese, wine and other tasty tidbits from across the world as I waited for the tasting to begin.
Cheryl, a therapist by trade, guided us through the history of Cowgirl Creamery and the success of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) in preserving farmland in and around the parks on the peninsula.
Sue and Peggy struck up a friendship with Straus Family and their organic creamery and began making cheese in 1994. This relationship with Straus helps give Cowgirl Creamery it’s artisan distinction, as “artisan” cheese signifies that the milk can be identified as coming from a single herd of cows (or sheep, buffalo, goat, etc).
Similarly, “farmstead” cheese means the cheese is produced from milk collected at the same farm where the cheese is made- truly a labor of love!
During our tasting we explored the process of making cheese- adding rennet to milk in order to coagulate the protein and calcium in the milk and form curds. The rennet used in our demonstration is derived from mushrooms, although rennet is typically sourced from ruminant animals (like cows, goats, sheep, etc).
We explored how curd size impacts density and firmness (smaller the curd upon separation, the less dense and firm the cheese) and discussed the importance of using pasteurized milk when producing cheeses that are aged 30 days or less, as are most of Cowgirl Creamery’s varieties.
We started our delicious tasting with some fresh cheeses, including crème fraiche and a fromage blanc that’s served like cream cheese. Next came Pierce Point, a seasonal washed-rind cheese that’s made from the milk of Jersey cows and accented with herbs, as well as the Mount Tam washed-rind cheese that’s made mostly from Holstein milk.
Now, I love all cows, but there’s something about the Jersey cow that makes me understand why farmers who raise them exclusively are so wild about them. Jersey cows are much smaller than the recognizable black-and-white Holsteins. In fact, compare these photos of young cows being shown at competition:
Holsteins (left) are massive cows that produce about nine gallons (about 75 pounds!) of milk per day. Jerseys (right) are smaller, more sensitive cows, and they produce much less milk- only about 5-6 gallons per day. But Jersey milk has a higher fat content than Holstein milk, which makes it prized by cheese makers.
We finished our tasting with Red Hawk and Wagon Wheel cheeses. Red Hawk has the distinction of being the only cheese made in the Pt. Reyes creamery as it relies on the B. linens bacteria readily available in the West Marin air.
At 75 days, Wagon Wheel has the distinction of being Cowgirl Creamery’s most aged cheese. Wagon Wheel was developed as an all-purpose melting cheese that San Francisco chefs could incorporate into their recipes.
Finishing with Wagon Wheel capped off a tasting at a creamery whose success is steeped in friendship and partnership. Perhaps it’s only fitting that several wheels of the seasonal Pierce Point came home with me to share with friends and loved ones.
For your own Cowgirl Creamery tasting adventure, head to Pt. Reyes on a Friday. Tastings are at 11am and 2pm, $5 per person, with reservations strongly encouraged.
Cowgirl Creamery at Tomales Bay Foods
80 4th Street
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
phone: (415) 663 9335 | fax: (415) 663-5418
Hours are Wednesday thru Sunday: 10am-6pm
And if you’re coming to Point Reyes, be sure to check out the amazing scenery- before or after your cheese tasting!
While it was foggy and cool for most of our visit, temperatures in the 50s-60s-70s were a welcome relief from Sacramento’s triple digit temps!