A new type of marketplace is a showcase for company’s cheese.
Like an aged Cheddar…complex, alluring and downright delicious—Cowgirl Creamery continues to evolve, championing a community of makers, preserving their environs and celebrating the 20th anniversary of their number one seller, Mt Tam.
In the beginning, the founders of Cowgirl Creamery, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, were inspired by the 1970’s back-to-the-land movement. When they drove their baby blue Chevy van cross country, they quickly realized the value of a cooperative food system, one that championed local and natural. Indeed, it was this ethos that eventually inspired them to open their own cheese company. Firmly rooted in Northern California with the collaboration of local dairy farmers and artisans, they went on to produce fresh, flavorful and healthy cheese.
Before becoming pioneers in the American cheese world, the two entrepreneurs spent years honing their culinary skills. Smith cooked at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse Café, the visionary restaurant that put California Cuisine on the map. It was there that she learned how to create dishes using pure and fresh flavors. Elsewhere in Berkeley, Conley and Bette Kroening co-founded Bette’s Oceanview Diner. Together, they created an iconic breakfast spot in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Ready for a change from the restaurant world, in 1995, Conley sold her shares in Bette’s Oceanview Diner. In collaboration with Smith, they bought an old barn in Point Reyes, an agrarian community 30 miles northwest of San Francisco. The duo spent years renovating the barn and acquiring project permits. Finally, in 1997, they opened Tomales Bay Foods with the purpose of bringing West Marin’s farm and dairy products into the kitchens of Bay Area chefs. Shortly thereafter, they began making their own cheese under the name Cowgirl Creamery. Taking inspiration from their surroundings, Cowgirl Creamery has created American originals for over 20 years. And, to this day, their award-winning cheeses exclusively use organic milk from neighboring farms—Tresch Family Farms, part of the group of dairies that make up Straus Family Creamery, and Bivalve Dairy.
In 2003, Smith and Conley opened a cheese shop in the newly renovated San Francisco Ferry Building. The landmark ferry terminal represented a new type of marketplace spotlighting the artisans and farmers that, up until that point, mainly occupied a “behind the scenes” persona in the culinary landscape. Today, at the Ferry Building, a curated constellation of businesses champion epicurean crafts and engage directly with consumers who have access to fresh produce from the farmer’s market and neighboring vendors.
When the stall next to Cowgirl Creamery became available in 2010, Conley and Smith opened Sidekick Café and Milk Bar, a dairy-focused, counter café. They first had the idea when traveling through France for the famous Salon de L’Agriculture event, where they were inducted into the Guilde des Fromagers, a who’s who of cheesemakers. While at the Salon, they discovered a milk bar selling fruit-infused milk drinks to children and an idea began to take shape. Indeed, the drinks at Sidekick spotlight the milk as well as other forms of craftsmanship, such as chocolate from Recchiuti Confections, another Ferry Building vendor.
Sidekick’s Grilled Cheese Favorite
But what began as an ode to milk, quickly became a full celebration of dairy and its many craveable sides. A Sidekick favorite is the grilled cheese sandwich made with neighboring Acme Bread Co.’s sourdough. A side of tomato soup topped with crème fraiche completes the meal. Diners can expect a classic sandwich or a seasonal special featuring farmer’s market finds, such as melted cauliflower and peas in spring or caramelized onions and apples in fall.
Patrons can walk up to the bar, grab a stool and stay awhile. Or, for a quick lunch, choose a sandwich to go. The Ham and Tam, made with Duroc ham, mustard and pickles on Acme bread, is a favorite.
In 2013, Smith and Conley published Cowgirl Creamery Cooks, a compilation of recipes that showcase the culinary side of cheese—from rib-sticking lasagna to deceivingly light soups and elegant desserts. The comprehensive cookbook chronicles the original Cowgirls journey in building this beloved business as well as tips on tasting, buying, serving and appreciating cheeses of all kinds. Cowgirl Creamery Cooks can be purchased on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound, or at local bookstores.
Cowgirl Tips for Great Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
• The best-tasting sandwiches combine three cheeses. For a creamier cheese middle, make one of them a soft cheese, such as Fromage Blanc. This acts as a suspension; just as egg whites suspend the heavier particles in a soufflé, so does the soft cheese suspend the grated cheese and distribute it more evenly across the bread. The end result is a much creamier filling.
• Think about pairing cheeses to compliment texture. For example, if one of the cheeses you’re using is hard, such as Parmesan, use another cheese that’s more classic, such as Mozzarella.
• Find a bread that enhances your sandwiches. We like baguettes or levain, but use your favorite bread. Bread that is slightly stale is better, because it’s not as moist, it browns better.
• Use regular butter, not clarified butter. At Sidekick, we started out using clarified butter but found that regular butter made tastier sandwiches. Those milk solids add to the flavor.
• Use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or any large pan with a heavy bottom. Set your pan over medium-low to medium heat. Because you’re cooking with regular butter, you don’t want a too hot pan, or the butter will burn.
• Don’t skimp on the cheese; use a good amount. It’s okay if the cheese filling spills over onto the hot pan. Those crunchy cheese bits around the edge of the sandwich are always welcome.
• Cooking a grilled cheese sandwich takes longer than you’d expect. Count on at least 3 minutes on each side.
(Reprinted with permission from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, copyright ©2013. Published by Chronicle Books. Photography credit: Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton ©2013)
A Different Kind of Happy Hour:
Sidekick’s Happy Hour is not a typical wine and beer only affair. The Afternoon Cheesemonger Roundup, from 3:30-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, is an interactive cheese experience. Cowgirl cheesemongers narrate cheese selections as they prepare bountiful boards with a variety of cheeses and accoutrements.
Local beer and wine, such as Scribe Winery and Domaine Carneros, complement what surely will become a delightful afternoon of socializing and grazing.
For those eyeing something a bit more indulgent, look no further than Cowgirl’s version of an Alpine winter staple, the raclette. Broilers placed above a half wheel of their Alpine-style Wagon Wheel render a deliriously gooey cheese that gets scraped onto crusty bread and topped with pickles. The inevitable line that forms during raclette hours is a testament to the gastronomic delight that ensues.