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Cowgirl Creamery’s new leadership shares future plans, favorite recipes

Cowgirl Creamery is arguably the preeminent artisan cheese company in the North Bay, with signature cheeses like the triple-cream Red Hawk and Mt. Tam repeatedly snagging top awards through the years.

The company was born in a humble barn in Point Reyes Station after its founders started helping their neighbors at Straus Family Creamery market their high-quality milk.

Like many of the region’s early pioneers of organic cheese-making — Cypress Grove in Arcata in 2010, then Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol in 2015 — Cowgirl Creamery was purchased by Swiss dairy company Emmi in 2016.

Since then, the company launched in 1997 by chefs Sue Conley and Peggy Smith has been preparing for the future, ramping up cheese production in 2017 with a new 30,000-square-foot facility on Lakeville Highway in Petaluma.

Smith and Conley announced their official retirement this year in January, and their legacy is a sustainable business rooted in its small community of West Marin yet able to meet growing cheese demand across the country.

Their rising tide through the years helped keep many other boats afloat, including local dairy farmers, chefs and other cheese producers they helped promote along with the careers of many cheesemakers, cheesemongers and food safety experts.

“Creating and building Cowgirl Creamery has been the greatest adventure in our lives,” Conley and Smith wrote in their farewell letter. “We leave a seasoned team of leaders, each with their own team of passionate people working together to strengthen this artisan cheese movement.”

Knowing they were ready to pass the torch to the next generation, the duo recruited Amanda Parker to join the executive team in 2018 as deputy managing director and mentored her. The 35-year-old Berkeley resident now leads the company as managing director.

Parker got her first taste of the cheese business just out of college, when she landed a job at the legendary Murray’s Cheese in New York City, which opened in Greenwich Village in 1940. She started out as a cheesemonger and ended up as vice president of business development, overseeing the opening of roughly 350 cheese kiosks in Kroger supermarkets across the country.

“I realized that I didn’t know what I didn’t know … and I wanted to know more,” Parker said. “I wanted to learn the academic pieces, the financial and acquisitional stuff.”

After graduating from a two-year MBA program at UC Berkeley, Parker was touring through Scotland when she received an unexpected email from Conley: “We heard you graduated. ... Are you interested in working with us and taking over as managing director?”

“I felt so lucky,” Parker said. “We had met at a cheese festival in Northern Italy, and we had stayed in touch over the years through cheese events. ... It all just fell into place.”

Working at Cowgirl Creamery, a small business nestled within a much larger corporation, reminds Parker of the partnership she was able to help nurture between tiny Murray’s Cheese and Kroger, the biggest supermarket chain in the country.

“It’s a pretty unique blend,” she said. “One of the best parts is that they (Emmi) recognize that there’s value in what they acquired in the first place. They are not looking to fundamentally change who we are. But, as we shift into the next phase, we have a little bit more of an engine behind us.”

Meanwhile, 20-year Cowgirl Creamery veteran Maureen Cunnie brings deep experience with the cheese company to her crucial role as supply chain director.

Cunnie started out as a cheesemaker, learning from Conley in 2001, and is credited with helping transform the company from a startup with seven employees to a national brand producer with about 75 employees.

Her job is to oversee purchasing, procurement, out-the-door distribution and production.

“It’s people safety, food safety, food quality and sustainability ambassador,” she said. “All these things are part of what makes our product what it is.”

We interviewed Parker and Cunnie to learn about some of the new products and other changes underway at the iconic company, which is aging nicely as it takes lessons learned from the past 20 years and applies them to the future.

From NYC to North Bay

Parker grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and attended Brown University, earning a degree in modern culture and media with a joint major in Italian studies. During study abroad in Bologna, Italy, she segued from a picky eater to a food person who would lead friends to the best pesto in Genoa.

Q: What first attracted you to the cheese world?

A: Like many people, I fell into cheese totally by accident. In America it’s not something we grew up learning a ton about. When I went to college, I realized that I really loved the world of food in general and was interested in food and media and magazines and writing. I worked for Gourmet Magazine and for the Food Network, and then I was working in Martha Stewart’s merchandising department. Then I was laid off. That was 2008.

A friend said, “Let’s go to this cheese class in downtown Manhattan.” It was cheese, chocolate and Champagne, so it was amazing. I kind of fell in love. ... I walked up to the teacher and asked for a job. The woman was the director of education at Murray’s, and she had an interesting perspective on how to talk about cheese and tell these stories, weaving in the microbiology and anthropology.

I started as the cheesemonger for Murray’s at Grand Central Station. The flagship was down in the Village, and I was at a smaller stall in this covered market within Grand Central. … I was able to combine so many things that I was interested in, storytelling and the history of cheese. I just love to learn.

Q: How did your apprenticeship at Murray’s shape your future?

A: I was there at a really good time. … I was the store manager of the flagship location and worked my way through retail management pretty quickly. It was the beginning of a partnership that Murray’s had with Krogers supermarkets … and I was the second person to be involved in rolling it out. I flew down to Georgia, and I discovered this concept, like the Starbucks kiosk inside larger markets, but for cheese.

In New York, cheese was such a privileged product, and you were selling to people who were familiar with them and could afford them. Not only was I teaching clerks but the customers as well. It was an incredible chance to spread the love and passion for cheese that I had developed into all these people all over the country, so I spent the next six years building it out.

Q: What did you want to do after you got your MBA in 2018?

A: I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on, other than I knew I wanted to stay in the food industry. … I knew I wanted to ultimately run a business, but I was’t sure what that would look like.

Working as we do now, we are both an organization that is run pretty much independently — we are still Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods (the distribution arm) — and we are still part of Emmi. It’s a great organization; the majority shareholders are dairy farmers. It’s very respectful when it comes to the traditions and legacies and what makes companies like ours great. So we can build out with the support of much bigger company … and we can introduce people to our corner of the world.

Peggy and Sue started to make cheese in Point Reyes in the late ’90s and then expanded to downtown Petaluma, and then we added a much bigger facility on Lakeville Highway. It’s all about production.

We have been lucky to have Whole Foods as a partner for a very long time now, so we have been nationally distributed for over a decade, at least. But we only just begun to expand into Krogers just last year. That’s only our second national partner.

Q: When Cowgirl Creamery opened in the SF Ferry Building in the early 2000s, it was a watershed moment, providing the company a higher profile in the Bay Area and across the country. What factors entered into the difficult decision of closing that shop in March?

A: It has been a difficult place to do business for some time. … It’s been hard to find people. When we first opened, it was really a great haven for great food. Over the last 20 years, many more outlets opened where people didn’t have to travel as far. So over the years, we saw a shift from all locals, to less locals, to locals only on the farmers market days. Then the pandemic hit, and we hung on as long as we could … but we took a hard look at the business, and it wasn’t sustainable any more. It was the end of an era.

Q: Do you have any plans to expand your home base in the barn at Point Reyes Station?

A: It’s still evolving. This summer, we just reopened fully … and we’re beginning to refresh the space. We gave it a fresh coat of paint, opened the doors and expanded into a side space that we’re going to be using as a combination studio for virtual tastings.

We’re looking toward the future and welcoming folks from out of town, but also thinking how can we better understand and participate in the Point Reyes community? It will be an interesting balance going forward … how can we protect this ag community, traditions and pastureland and help use our business to do good in the community?

In the deil, we had to rethink how we sell sandwiches and to-go food out there. ... We’ve transitioned more into the grab-and-go items. We still have local produce and great cheeses, but we definitely shifted into self-service.

Q: It’s been a few years since you introduced a new cheese, Hop-Along. But now you’ve got Inverness, which you’re now able to selling more widely.

A: What’s interesting about Inverness is that it’s not technically new, but it was our smallest production cheese, and we only made enough to sell at our place.

It’s unusual in that it’s a variant on fromage blanc, but soft-ripened and aged just a little bit longer. We love the fact that it’s a small format, and we realized that having that single serve, smaller format cheese was helpful for people who weren’t entertaining as much (during the pandemic).

It’s quite close to the cheeses that are most identified with the goat cheeses of France. Ours is a cow’s milk cheese, but it has the button size and the lighter, thinner rind, with the wrinkles. We love that it has that light, floral quality, the brininess and the oyster shells and the yeastiness of sourdough or crème fraîche. It’s a very unusual, delicious little cheese in a small package.

Q: Where do you source your milk from?

A: We have two dairy partners: The Straus Family Creamery and Bivalve Dairy out in Point Reyes. We don’t blend the milks. It is always one or the other. We are simple cheesemakers who are there to highlight the quality of the milk. It’s such good milk that we don’t have to do much with it.

Q: Do you ever communicate with founders Peggy Smith and Sue Conley?

A: They stepped back from the business in 2019, then stayed on as advisers and members of the board. … They are still around to answer questions, but they deserve a break after all these years and all this hard work. I called Peggy last week, and she was walking on the beach.

Q: How do you see the future of Cowgirl Creamery with a new generation at the helm?

A: We are very fortunate that we are a company built on a foundation with values and a vision to help our communities, to make delicious, organic cheeses and to stay trailblazing like Peggy and Sue.

We have an immediate goal of expanding our cheeses into more communities ... making new products, exploring new ventures and new ways to share.

To help our growth means helping our dairy partners and building our team here. ... We have a long way to go. We have a lot of opportunities ahead of us in all of those areas. The future has yet to be written.

Vision for the future

Cunnie has worked at Cowgirl Creamery for 20 years, watching it grow as she has taken on more responsibility. She provided insight into some of the company’s watershed moments over the years and a few of its newer cheeses, from Wagon Wheel and Hop-Along to Inverness.

Q: How did you get started at Cowgirl Creamery?

A: I drove across country to interview with Peg and Sue in 2001, and Sue taught me how to make cheese. I always remember that because it was 9/11.

Q: How did the opening of the shop at the SF Ferry Building affect the company?

A: Production just blew through the roof. It was still very small, and we kept running out of fresh cheese. The store would sell out and keeping up with demand was challenging.

The next watershed moment was opening up the shop in Washington, D.C., in 2006. We closed it six or seven years ago.

Q: Then you expanded your production with another plant in Petaluma?

A: We opened a second plant in 2008 on First Street. That was a huge moment because it allowed us to make more cheese efficiently and distribute it more efficiently. It also allowed us to make new cheeses.

We started working on a pressed-curd Alpine cheese called Wagon Wheel. It’s about a 15-pound cheese. We made one batch a week, and we would take it to the farmers markets and get feedback from our customers.

We started Hop-Along in the fall of 2017 and formally released it in 2018. That’s also a pressed curd cheese, washed in cider, a little bit pudgier and a little bit sweeter. Wagon Wheel is more like a French Onion Soup flavor. They’re both cooking cheeses. They’re great on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Q: What about the newest cheese on the block, Inverness?

A: We call it a renovation. It’s a little big bigger than we made before, and we’re making it in a more sustainable way, so we can scale it up. We were manually filling the molds with cheese. Now we’re able to make four times as much cheese. It’s called a block form and all the forms are attached and you spread the curd over the forms and level it off, 40 forms at a time.

Inverness is now a little bigger, so it has more body to it and more integrity, and it’s able to travel nationally.

Q: How did the pandemic affect the company’s focus?

A: The virtual cheese tastings are very popular now. ... It was a real eye opener. People were eager for it. We can ship them the cheese and educate them. We can reach people in Chicago and Florida. We are going to keep that.

Q: What is your vision for the future at Cowgirl?

A: I think there are still markets in the U.S. that we haven’t reached. We are primarily in the Bay Area, and we have room to grow.

One of our goals is to continue to create new cheeses, not every month, but sustainably, with high-quality and good milk sources and new products that will complement our existing ones.

The texture of these rhubarb-lemon preserves is somewhere between a jam and a marmalade, making them very spreadable and great for brunch. Just add crusty bread, a nice cold bottle of rosé and lots of sunshine. You can easily double the recipe for a larger batch and jar the preserves using the water bath canning method.

Pair these preserves with soft-ripened Inverness, Cowgirl’s smallest-production cheese. This recipe was developed by Asha Loupy (@fromheadtotable on Instagram).

Inverness with Rhubarb and Meyer Lemon Preserves

Makes 2 cups (1 large, 16-ounce jar)

3 cups rhubarb, diced

2 large Meyer lemons, halved, seeded and thinly sliced

1½ cups organic granulated cane sugar

3 crushed green cardamom pods or 1 split vanilla bean (optional)

Combine the rhubarb, Meyer lemons and sugar in a medium saucepan, stirring to coat the fruit in the sugar. If you are adding any flavorings, stir in those as well.

Place the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a gentle boil, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar doesn’t burn, until the preserves are thick and reach 217 degrees. This temperature will result in a luscious, spreadable texture.

Transfer to a glass jar and let cool to room temperature. Keep in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Summer is the time for a backyard barbecue, and it deserves an elevated look this year. A classic frankfurter holds nostalgia, and here it also transports loads of melted, buttery Mt. Tam. The Bacon Jam stands up to the earthiness of Tam’s rind, while freshly pickled local cherries give a burst of bright fruit to cut through the richness, creating balance. With a traditional mustard pairing, it’s all nestled in a crispy, split-top brioche bun.

The Bacon Jam and pickled cherry recipes will be more than you need for eight franks but will last in your refrigerator for weeks, and who doesn’t love some extra summer condiments on hand for a casual dinner party?

This recipe was developed by Elissa Jacknick (@thebraise on Instagram).

Frankfurter with Mt. Tam, Bacon Jam, Pickled Cherries and Mustard

Makes 8 frankfurters

8 German frankfurters, from your local butcher or Olympia Provisions

8 brioche or potato rolls

1 round Mt. Tam, cut into ½-inch pieces

Bacon Jam (see recipe below) or Eat This Bacon Marmalade

Pickled Cherries (see recipe below) or The Fine English Co. Pickled Cherries, quartered

Whole Mustard Seed Mustard, from American Spoon or brand of choice

Tender herbs such as dill, chives and/or parsley, for garnish

3 tablespoons butter, softened, to toast buns (optional)

If using a split-top brioche roll, butter the sides and toast until golden in a cast-iron pan directly on the grill (optional).

Grill franks to your desired doneness, and place in brioche buns.

Assemble immediately (so your cheese begins to melt!) by topping with Bacon Jam, then Mt. Tam and finishing with pickled cherries, mustard seeds and fresh herbs.

Note: If your franks are not quite hot enough to get your cheese as gooey as you’d like, place your assembled bun plus Bacon Jam and Mt. Tam back onto a warm grill, watching closely so you don’t burn the buns. Remove and finish with cherries, mustard seeds and herbs.

Bacon Jam

Makes 8 ounces

1 pound bacon, finely diced

2 medium onions, finely diced

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

1 navel orange, zested and juiced

1 cup cider vinegar

Worcestershire sauce

1 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Pepper, to taste

Place bacon in a cold, heavy-bottom pan and cook slowly on medium-low heat until fully rendered, about 30 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove bacon from the pan and set aside to be folded back later.

Drain off some of the bacon fat so you have a thin layer coating the bottom of the pan.

On medium-low heat, add the diced onions to your pan and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Once the onions are gently caramelized, add the thyme and orange zest and allow to bloom, about 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Deglaze the pan with vinegar, orange juice and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil and add brown sugar; stir to combine and reduce heat.

Simmer uncovered for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will be tempting to continue reducing, but as the jam cools it will thicken quite a bit. Set aside to cool before refrigerating.

Note: Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four weeks.

Pickled Cherries

Makes 1 16-ounce jar

1½ cups cherries, pitted

½ cup red wine vinegar

⅓ cup honey

¼ cup water

2 fresh bay leaves

10 whole peppercorns

½ teaspoon salt

Place pitted cherries in a 16-ounce Mason jar. If you do not have a cherry pitter, simply slice around the pit.

In a small saucepan, add red wine vinegar, honey, water, bay leaves, peppercorns and salt. Bring to a boil.

As soon as the liquid comes to a boil (careful not to reduce!) gently pour over the cherries. Cover and allow to sit for at least one hour before using.

Notes: Cherries will last in the refrigerator for up to six weeks, as long as they are covered in pickle liquid. Your cherry pickle liquid is basically shrub — use it in a cocktail or mocktail, or even in a salad dressing.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

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