Blessed with a unique terroir and distinctive indigenous cheese varieties, Northern California’s organic dairy farmers and cheesemakers are aiming to grow the region’s reputation as a hotbed of artisan cheese.
On a recent evening at San Francisco’s Jewish Community Center, Cowgirl Creamery‘s Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, along with Sunset magazine food editor Margo True and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, were celebrating the release of their book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.”
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Importance of milk
The word “milkshed” appears often in the book, and Conley explained it simply refers to the place where a region gets its milk. The milkshed of West Marin County, just outside San Francisco, for instance, enabled and inspired Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses. Specifically, it was the milk from the Holsteins and Jerseys on the Straus dairy that gave the Cowgirls their start in cheese making.
In the early 1990s, small family dairies were facing financial challenges that threatened their survival. Second-generation farmer Albert Straus had the idea to transition his lands and herd to a certified organic operation; his neighbors thought he had lost his mind.
At the time industrial agriculture was expanding, causing milk prices to be too low to sustain family farms. Straus thought that going organic would be the key to a viable business model because of the higher profit margin such methods yield. He also believed organic methods would be a more environmentally responsible way to manage the farm.
In 1994, the Straus Family Creamery became the first dairy west of the Mississippi River to go organic. It was Albert Straus’ vision that set the table for the artisan cheese movement in Northern California: to create a product that would save agricultural lands and dairy farming in the area.
Conley and Smith traveled to England and France and observed regional cheese making. Often an appellation is created that reflects the flora and surroundings of an area, (like Comte cheese from France), and the Cowgirls realized that they had the ingredients to do this at their creamery in bucolic Point Reyes Station, outside San Francisco.
“We had this beautiful milk,” Conley said. “It’s all about the milk, the health of the animals and the beautiful pastures. We realized we had [those elements of an appellation] in our own place.”
So using Straus milk exclusively, they started out making fresh cheeses like quark, cottage cheese and fromage blanc. Their first effort at an aged cheese was called Mt. Tam, after the landmark mountain in Marin County near the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The cheese is a triple cream and is meant to showcase the spring milk from the herd at the dairy. It is a buttery, mellow, approachable cheese that won second place at the American Cheese Society competition in 2010, and it is considered Cowgirl’s signature cheese. Next was Red Hawk, a rich and savory cheese with a pungent aroma and a red rind, also an award winner at the ACS, the Los Angeles County Fair and other competitions.
Years later, more inspiration came during the recession. They wanted to make a big, utilitarian cheese for daily use, a cooking cheese similar to fresh Asiago, which was requested by their friend Judy Rodgers, from Zuni Café in San Francisco. The initial efforts didn’t work well, so they made successive batches, bringing tastes to the farmers market for customers to give their opinion. The final recipe is a washed rind, semi-hard cheese that is versatile for cooking and eating. It won gold at the California State (2011) and the Los Angeles County Fairs (2010).
The Cowgirls also make four seasonal cheeses using organic milk from Taverna Dairy in the small hamlet of Chileno Valley. The Taverna herd is all Jersey cows; and the cheeses, although made by a recipe similar to Mt. Tam, have a very different taste profile because of the milk and its terroir.
In addition to their own cheeses, Conley and Smith collaborate, support and promote artisan, farmstead cheesemakers throughout the region. Using the model of Neal’s Yard in London, they sell these local products at their cheese counters in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Point Reyes Shop, believing that helping the artisan cheese movement grow is crucial to the future of the small family farm and to agriculture in this country in general.
To that end, Straus told the crowd at the Jewish Community Center that he and the Cowgirls were looking at creating an organic processing hub.
“What we’ve done in Marin and Sonoma counties is created this model of farming that we are trying to work on how can we revitalize the farming community and get the next generation of farmers in succession farming,” he said.
The Straus dairy, Cowgirl Creamery and maybe other organic producers would partner in one facility. A demonstration dairy would allow the public to see everything from the cow to the finished product. There would be an incubator of sorts for up-and-coming farmers, to help them get established in the business and explore ways to save energy and promote land stewardship.
“Our book teaches how cheese is made, but not how to make cheese,” Conley said. But “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks” is more than just a primer for how cheese is made. There are notes on composing cheese plates, delicious accompaniments to enhance them and myriad recipes that showcase glorious cheese and milk products.
Smith said her favorite recipes are in the chapter called “Ends and Bits,” which was designed to give ideas for what to do with all those pieces that end up in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Her favorite recipe from this section is Parmesan broth, which uses the leftover bits of hard cheese to make a rich, flavorful stock. That stock lends itself to a soup that celebrates spring.
Adapted from “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks,” Chronicle Books 2013
Makes 3 quarts
12 cups cool water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cups medium-diced onions
1 cup coarsely chopped carrots
1 cup coarsely chopped celery
¼ ounce dried mushroom, such as porcini or shiitake
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 sprigs fresh flat leaf parsley
About 1 cup leftover bits of hard cheese and natural rind
1. In a large pot, bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat.
2. While the water heats, use another large pot to melt the butter over medium heat. When it’s melted, add the onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, bay leaves, thyme and parsley. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots, celery and mushrooms are soft, about 8 minutes.
3. With a wooden spoon, stir in the cheese bits. Let the cheese and vegetables sit on the bottom of the pot for short periods of time, no longer than 10 seconds. This will allow the vegetables and the cheese to brown the bottom of the pot a little. (You don’t want all the vegetables browned, but just the bottom surface needs a little color.) Stir often.
4. When the vegetables and cheese at the very bottom of the pot show some brown and the cheese is beginning to melt, slowly introduce the simmering water to the pot, stirring in just 1 cup/240 ml to start. Stirring constantly, deglaze the pan’s bottom with the hot water to loosen any browned bits. When the pot bottom is clean of any brown, pour in the remainder of the water. Decrease the heat to medium-low and monitor the heat, adjusting the flame so the broth stays at a gentle simmer.
5. Simmer for 40 to 50 minutes, stirring every 3 to 5 minutes, so the broth doesn’t pick up a scorched flavor. Strain the broth into a very large container or another clean pot and allow it to cool. Once it’s cool, you can easily skim the top of any fats. Store this in your refrigerator for up to 3 days or in your freezer for up to 3 months.
Spring Soup With Asparagus, Potatoes and Leeks
Makes 1½ quarts
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large leek, split lengthwise to the root, rinsed well then cut into thin, crosswise slices — about 2 cups
1 cup celery, thinly sliced crosswise
1 bunch asparagus, bottom ¼-inch removed and discarded, tips removed and set aside, remaining stems sliced crosswise into 1-inch pieces, about 1½ cups
Salt and pepper
1 clove garlic minced
1½ cups Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and diced – about 2 medium
4 cups Parmesan broth
¼ cup crème fraiche
1. Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium high heat until shimmering. Add leek, celery and asparagus pieces and sauté until coated with oil. Season with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
2. Turn heat to low, cover the pan and sweat the vegetables until soft but not colored, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and potatoes and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Add broth, ½ teaspoon salt and 3 grindings of pepper from a mill, stir to combine, turn heat to medium and bring to a simmer.
4. Cook until potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, lightly steam asparagus tips until crisp tender. Set aside.
6. Purée the soup using an immersion blender, food processor or traditional blender until smooth.
7. Serve in bowls with a dollop of crème fraiche and an asparagus tip on top of each serving.
Top photo: Cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. Credit: Brooke Jackson