If you haven’t already noticed from the names that have popped up over the course of this blog series, women are in no short supply in the contemporary American artisan cheese movement. In fact, women have played key roles in American dairies from the very beginning.
It should come as no surprise, then, that two California women have made a name for themselves in a major way with their foray into the cheese business. Sue Conley and Peggy Smith are the frequently smiling faces behind Marin County’s Cowgirl Creamery.
When the two restaurant industry veterans struck out on their own in the early 1990s, it was not with the intention of making some of the country’s best cheeses. But like so many of the stories we have already featured, the passion for cheesemaking and the right environment seemed to click into place and they haven’t looked back ever since.
Today, Cowgirl Creamery employs three cheesemakers at two locations in Northern California’s Marin County and makes a variety of different cheeses, each of which have received a slew of awards. In 2003, it was the Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk that took home top honors at the American Cheese Society conference in San Francisco.
Red Hawk gets its name from the reddish-orange hue that manifest on the rind of the cheese as it ages in the humid coastal climate of the creamery’s Point Reyes location. In fact, Red Hawk only came about because a bit of an accident in the cheesemaking process.
Some of the creamery’s signature Mt. Tam triple cream cheesehad started to grow an unsightly mold, which was actually Brevibacterium linens. The cheesemakers washed the cheese in a briny solution to get rid of the bacteria, but instead the solution actually encouraged its growth. The resulting cheese had the same triple cream richness of Mt. Tam with a washed rind pungency that was unmistakable and an instant hit. It turns out that the bacteria that is added artificially to so many washed rind cheeses occurs naturally and downright thrives in the damp air in Point Reyes.
Cowgirl Creamery has produced this decadent and powerful cheese ever since. Some timid tasters may be put off by a whiff of Red Hawk, but for those that can embrace the aroma, a unique and memorable flavor awaits. The motto of washed rind cheeses is: “It does not taste like it smells!”
Red Hawk relies on organic cows milk from the nearby Straus Family Creamery, which is then enriched with even more cream, hence the triple cream distinction. The flavors that develop in this cheese during its six-week aging period are rich and earthy with hints of mushroom and spice.
Because the rounds are packaged whole, cheeses will continue to ripen after purchase as the exterior molds act upon the interior curd, transforming it into a glistening, oozy goodness just beneath the rind with a firmer “heart” at the center. The longer the cheese is aged, the more pronounced the flavor and aroma. If you are a fan of milder cheeses, eat it sooner. Otherwise, age it for two to three weeks for fuller flavor and more unctuous texture.
The flavorful cheese goes well with an aromatic wine, such as a Gewurztraminer. The creamy texture is best enjoyed at room temperature where it can be spread across a cracker or eaten by itself. Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk may have been an accident, but it has become a staple for anyone seeking out the best in American cheeses.