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Artisan Cheese Festival

When: March 23-25

Where: Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma, and a few other locations

Admission: $40-$150

Info: artisancheesefestival.com


It’s hard to imagine the artisan cheese movement of the North Bay without the dynamic duo of Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, two college friends hailing from the Washington, D.C. area who opened the Cowgirl Creamery in 1997 in a renovated barn in Point Reyes Station.

Now, 20 years later, the pioneering Cowgirl Creamery and its marketing sidekick, Tomales Bay Foods — a trifecta of cheese production, distribution and retail — has become a sturdy and reliable link in the California cheese chain, boasting two retail shops, two creameries, a staff of nearly 100 people and a line of award-winning products that includes 10 different types of cheeses made exclusively from the Northern California “milkshed.”

Over time, Cowgirl Creamery came to mean something much larger than making great cheese, however. It was the fire that fueled the entire artisan cheese movement, starting with the food revolution of the Bay Area and ending with the renaissance of the dairy industry along the North Coast.

“The community (came) together around the idea of forming an appellation, of centering West Marin’s regional identity around dairy farming and cheese,” Smith and Conley wrote in their 2013 cookbook, “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.” “Contrary to popular belief, the cheese does not stand alone, and neither does the cheesemaker.”

Now the region is dotted with 28 cheesemakers and the Cowgirls can claim international bragging rights, having won many awards and served on multiple boards, from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust to the California Artisan Cheese Guild. They were both inducted into the Guilde des Fromagers in 2010.

Like Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery in Sebastopol and Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods was sold to Swiss dairy company Emmi in 2016, but its founders have continued to steer the business toward innovation and growth. Now getting ready to open a new creamery in Petaluma, Cowgirl Creamery hopes to supply their fans with a steady supply of cheese for the next 20 years, ranging from the buttery Mt. Tam and the pungent Red Hawk to the seasonal St. Pat and the return of its cottage cheese.

While getting ready to speak at the 11th California Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma this weekend, Conley took a nostalgic look back on the past 20 years and talked about some of the inspiring people and places that led the two friends to leave their kitchens — Smith worked at Chez Panisse, while Conley was one of the founders of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley — to start their wild West adventure in cheese.

____

Q: You first arrived in the Bay Area in 1976 during the food revolution. How did that influence your career?

A: I don’t think our career could have happened anywhere else … what we were able to do and all the education and collaboration along the way. We did have a business in Washington, D.C., for eight years. We meant for it to be a mirror of our business here, which is three equal parts: retail, wholesale distribution and the production of cheese.

That’s what gives it its energy and success. We needed to be all of it because we couldn’t distribute our cheese. It’s hard to get it out there. There was not a legitimate wholesaler. And it was always in our mission to promote artisan and farmstead cheese, the way we had seen it in Europe and Great Britain.

Artisan Cheese Festival

When: March 23-25

Where: Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma, and a few other locations

Admission: $40-$150

Info: artisancheesefestival.com

The food revolution was about learning classic cooking skills and using local ingredients … There was a spirit of collaboration and learning on the job. We were a little bit behind Jennifer Bice (of Redwood Hill) and Laura Chenel (of Laura Chenel’s Chevre) and Mary Keehn (of Cypress Grove Chevre), so they really helped us. The American Cheese Society was started by a professor at Cornell who came from Europe, and he said, ‘We’re making terrible cheese in the U.S.’ So he founded the ACS with a couple of grad students to learn how to make traditional cheese. And I think that spirit carries through today. They have a conference and a competition every year, and it’s gotten pretty big. When we first started, there were just 200 in the competition, and now there are 1,800 American cheeses. So it is expanding.

Q: Chez Panisse and Bette’s Oceanview Diner are both wildly successful restaurants but very different in nature. Is there a common thread?

A: They have a similar spirit. Bette’s is breakfast and lunch, and Chez Panisse is a more formal dinner house. At Bette’s, we tried to make everything from scratch from the best ingredients, but it was for everyday food.

Q: How did you make the leap into cheese?

A: Peggy was a pretty accomplished chef, so she was invited to Vinexpo in Bordeaux, a wine trade show. The California vintners created the California Grill, and I think Judy Rodgers was the first chef, and Catherine Brandel did it, and then Peggy did it six times. And I got to go on three of those trips. And we got to understand the difference between industrial and artisan cheese and became friends with the cheesemonger in downtown Bordeuax, Jean d’Alos, owned by Jean-Claude and Pascale Cazales. And we also got close with Randolph Hodgson at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. They had similar motives in their shops, where they were trying to support the artisan, raw milk, small production cheesemakers. And they also made the fresh cheese that was sold in the shop.

So this was a whole world opening up. Both Randolph and Jean-Claude and Pascale all wanted to talk about the milk that was going into the cheese, what kind of cow, what are they eating, and what’s the elevation? So we started looking at cheese that way as well.

When I moved to Point Reyes in 1989 and met the Strauses (of Straus Family Creamery). I said, ‘We’ve got the best milk in California right here.’ And Albert (Straus) was just putting his business together to make the first organic dairy in the West in 1992.

I sold my share to Bette’s in 1993, and then I started helping Albert to market the milk to all of our friends in the city … the restaurants and stores that we knew. And then there was this barn for sale in downtown Point Reyes. I thought we could do a business like they have in Europe, make fresh cheese, and then bring the cheeses from the countryside to the shop.

Point Reyes didn’t become a destination overnight. For three years, hardly anyone came there except for our friends in Berkeley. We always did the farmers markets from Day 1, and we just stopped two years ago. And Tomales Bay Foods always had a restaurant. We knew we could always make a sandwich.

We always wanted to have a small outpost in the city … we moved to the Ferry Building in 2003 … and that helped us to become a national brand.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced?

A: There wasn’t much education at the time, but we would go to conferences with the ACS and the short course at Cal Poly, which is one week. And then I went to a course in Washington state.

Cheesemaking is trendy, but it’s not easy. It’s hard to license a room for cheesemaking. It’s not like beer or wine or bread. It’s more like charcuterie. There are a lot of rules and infrastructure that needs to go into it.

If you look at the California Cheese Trail, many of the new cheeses are on-farm production, because they have the milk, and they have rooms with the right surfaces and drains and a place to put their waste in their manure pond. Cheesemaking is 10 percent curd and 90 percent whey, so that’s a hard thing for a more urban facility, to get rid of the waste. But that makes the farms more valuable. They have a connection with their consumers, so it’s a pretty important part of our agricultural industry. There’s a lot of potential there.

Q: What has changed the most since you started making cheese 20 years ago?

A: It used to be that people wouldn’t try cheeses that they hadn’t heard of. They wanted brie and pepperjack. But if you said, “How about a little Carmody?” … Now, they want to try whatever is new, and they want to learn about it. There’s a real appreciation and a real pride in our community. That’s really the only thing we wanted for our business: to have that identity and pride that we saw in Europe. You can see the cows, you can taste the cheese, and it becomes your cheese.

Q: How do you and Peggy divide and conquer the workload?

A: Initially, I was the cheesemaker, and now I’ve moved into learning the marketing and mail-order department and retail. And Peggy is doing production and distribution. But we have a middle layer now of people who have been with us for a long time, who are very good if not better … they have worked together for all these years and helped to make the cheese better and better and create new cheese. We’re backing off from the day to day. All of a sudden we looked up, and we were getting old. We’re both 64.

Q: What will you be doing for the Artisan Cheese Festival?

A: Peggy and I are doing a class with the Giacomini Sisters (of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese). It’s about the history of cheesemaking in our area, with a tasting of rum and six of the cheeses from the two companies.

Q: What was your goal in writing your cookbook?

A: We’re cooks, and we really wanted to write a story about our adventure in cheese, but the publisher at Chronicle (Books) said ‘No one will buy that. You have to put some recipes in it.’

What we’re trying to do is to explain cheese the way we learned it, starting with fresh, and then it gets more complicated with the soft. So if you know how it’s made, you can understand how to cook with it.

Q: Do you have some favorite recipes?

A: The lasagna recipe is really good, and the mac and cheese, but there are so many variations on that. I don’t ever want people to be constrained by a recipe.

There are good tips on how to make a really good grilled cheese, by grating the cheese and mixing cheeses together, using fromage blanc as a binder. And I like the section on how to create a cheese board with a point of view.

Q: You and Peggy both live in Petaluma. What do you like about the town?

A: I like the size, in that you can go 17 miles in any direction and be in a much different microclimate. We’re getting good restaurants and that’s exciting. So the food scene is definitely expanding, but it still has the rancher feeling. It’s not too fancy. It’s just right … It’s the best of everything.

___

The following recipes are from “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks” by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith.

“This soufflé is light, satisfying, and beautiful,” they wrote. “Use a good ricotta — we like Bellwether Farms’ Whole Milk Ricotta. And the eggs need to be fresh, or the whites won’t get as fluffy as they need to be.”

Ricotta-Asparagus Soufflé
Makes 8 servings

For béchamel:
1 cup whole milk or half-and-half
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh chives
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For soufflé:
6 fat asparagus spears, blanched
4 egg whites
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh basil
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh chives
2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Butter a 10-inch baking dish and set it aside.

To make the béchamel: Whisk together the milk and egg yolks and set aside. Add the butter to a medium saucepan or skillet (don’t use a nonstick pan). When it’s sizzling, add the flour and whisk constantly over medium heat until the mixture shows just a little color. Don’t let it turn brown. Keep whisking while you slowly pour in the milk-egg mixture. It’s fine if the butter and flour seize up when you add the liquid. Just keep whisking. Add the chives and, while whisking, let the mixture cook over medium heat until it thickens slightly, about 1 minute. When the mixture has a velvety texture, stir in the ricotta, salt and pepper. Set the mixture in the pan aside to cool to room temperature (so the eggs won’t curdle when you add the warm, blanched asparagus.)

To make the soufflé: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Cut the blanched asparagus stalks into thin rounds all the way up to and including the tip of each spear. Set aside. With an electric mixer on medium-high speed or with a whisk, whip the egg whites until they hold a gentle peak. Don’t overbeat, or you’ll break the proteins and the whites won’t expand as much during cooking. Gently fold the basil and chives into the beaten whites.

Touch the béchamel to be sure it’s at room temperature. Stir the asparagus into the cooled béchamel. Gently fold in about half of the egg whites. Very delicately fold in the last of the egg whites and pour the mixture into the buttered pan.

Cook the soufflé for 7 minutes and then decrease the heat to 400 degrees. Cook until the soufflé is lightly browned on top and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, 10 to 12 minutes more.

Sprinkle the parsley over the top and serve right away.

___

“This version is creamy and simple, so the flavor of your cheese comes through,” they wrote. “Choose a good sharp Cheddar as a base; you need 16 ounces of cheese plus the Parmesan. You can use all Cheddar or a comantino of half Cheddar and half ends and bits. Some folks add parsley or other herbs before baking.”

Classic Mac And Cheese
Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 pound grating cheese
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon hot sauce
12 ounces pasta (elbow or corkscrew)
1 1/2 cups panko or fresh bread crumbs
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan or other cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place a rack in the bottom third of the oven, and butter a 3-quart baking dish. Set a large pot of unsalted water over high heat.

While the water heats, melt the butter in a large saucepan. When the butter has finished foaming, stir in the flour, whisking until the flour takes on a little color, about 3 minutes. TAke the pan off the heat and pour in the milk slowly, while whisking continuously. Return the pan to medium heat. Stir until the mixture begins to thicken (about 5 minutes) and then take the pan off the heat again; stir in the cream, mustard and three-fourths of the cheese. Stir in the salt, a few grinds of pepper, and the hot sauce. SEt the sauce aside.

Cook the pasta just until al dente. Drain (don’t rinse) and quickly stir the pasta into the cheese sauce, then pour into the prepared pan, scraping all the cheese sauce into the dish. Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese over the pasta. Sprinkle the panko over the cheese, and sprinkle the Parmesan on top of that.

Bake until the mixture is bubbling on the edges and showing some golden brown color on top, 25 to 35 minutes. Let the dish cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.

___

“This may be the one best way to use up the cheese ends and bits in your fridge,” they wrote. “You can make this wiht almost any cheese and be completely satisfied.”

Simple, Classic Grilled Cheese
Makes 2 sandwiches

4 ounces fromage blanc
4 ounces Cheddar cheese (or any cheese), grated
4 ounces Monterey Jack (or any cheese), grated
6 slices Levain bread (From Acme Bread, if you’re lucky)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

In a medium bowl, combine all three cheeses. Divide the cheese mixture evenly between three slices of the bread, top with the remaining three bread slices to form sandwiches, and butter the outside of the bread.

Heat a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or any large pan with a heavy bottom over medium heat.

Place a sandwich in the heated pan and cook until the bread touching the pan is golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Flip the sandwich and continue to cook until the cheese is completely melted and the bottom of the sandwich is golden brown. Repeat for each sandwich and serve right away.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.