Since 1997, Sue Conley and business partner Peggy Smith have grown Cowgirl Creamery into one of the most recognizable cheese brands on the West Coast. Along the way, they’ve grown their creamery from Point Reyes to Petaluma and beyond. They now have the original shop at Tomales Bay Foods, plus locations in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and across the country in Washington, D.C. Over the weekend, Cowgirl Creamery co-founder Sue Conley was in Los Angeles to attend two very different cheese pairing events. On October 30, just before the start of the Ford’s Filling Station match-up with fellow Petaluma business Lagunitas Brewing Company, we spoke briefly, and Conley shared some insights on how to best utilize her cheese.
What is the key to great pairings with cheese, whether it’s beer, alcohol or wine?
It’s interesting. I think it’s harder to pair wine and cheese. Beer seems to be very friendly. Different pairings are successful, whereas we did a pairing with wine last night and it’s very tricky depending on how old the wine is, the age of the cheese and the producer. With beer, because there’s so much yeast, and that kind of sweetness, cheese really likes that.
What do you think distinguishes your cheese from other creameries?
It the United States, we haven’t had many great cheesemakers until recently, the last 20 years we’ve seen a resurgence of the craft – with a small c, not a capital K – in the same way we’ve seen that with beer, craft brewing. We’re part of a craft cheesemaking renaissance, so it’s actually fairly easy to find amazing, handmade American cheeses now. We’ve really come up in the last five years especially. What makes it good is really good milk and a light hand with the cheesemaker, and a really nice environment for the cheese as it ages. So we’re learning a lot of these things in America because we’d forgotten about it for awhile.
What about using your cheese in cooking? What do you think is important?
We make three fresh cheeses, a cottage cheese, a fromage blanc and a crème fraiche. We also make an Indian cheese, a little fresh paneer. Those are really nice for cooking. I’ve never really suggested that people cook with our Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and our seasonal cheese, Pierce Pt., because they’re so great all by themselves, but I think we’re in for a treat today, and I’ve tasted some really amazing dishes, especially with the Red Hawk, because it has that pungency, and the creaminess. It really lends itself to things like potato gratin, where you get that creamy, melty, oozy and pungent flavor with the gentleness of the potato. I’m not sure what the chef’s doing here today, with the Red Hawk, but I’m interested to see that. We also brought a Wagon Wheel today, which is our first hard cheese. It’s not a hard grating cheese. It’s kind of a medium hard texture. We designed that as a cooking cheese. It’s a good melter, so it’s a good grilled cheese, quesadilla, everyday delicious melting cheese, or table cheese.
What’s the key to a great mac and cheese?
A great mac and cheese is a combination of cheeses. I like three, four cheeses, one that’s a good stretchy one, a good pungent one and a good melter, at least, and Parmesan. I like grating the cheese instead of chunking it in cubes, and mixing it altogether. Then I make a really good Bechamel sauce, melt the cheese in the sauce and toss it in the noodles. Good cheese is the key.