Real American Cheese

There’s a renaissance in cheese making in this country, and fans of fromage enjoy the benefits.

By Diana Pittet


Fresh wheels of Red Hawk maturing at Cowgirl Creamery. The West Coast: Cowgirl Creamery

Our journey ends in California, where the current farm-to-table movement began. Cofounders of Cowgirl Creamery, in coastal Point Reyes Station, California, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith were key players in this culinary revolution, working in pioneering restaurants in the Bay Area. Relocating to foggy Marin County, northwest of San Francisco, in the 1990s, the two were committed to preserving the area’s agricultural land and traditional, homegrown food products. For the two, the chief way to do this was to make cheese.

Cowgirl Creamery sources almost all of its organic milk from the Straus Organic Dairy, also in Marin. One taste of Straus’s luscious dairy products shows why; it’s so rich and creamy that you’ll be hard-pressed to use those adjectives for anything else. “We’re in love with the milk that we work with, we’re in love with Albert Straus’s mission, and so we’re just trying to promote that,” asserts Smith. Only a few years before Cowgirl Creamery started making cheeses in 1997, Straus had courageously converted his parents’ dairy to organic and became the first certified-organic dairy in California, and the “cowgirls” wanted to help. The result: seven voluptuous soft-aged cheeses, one firm table cheese, and three fresh ones.

A selection of Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses.One cheese in particular showcases the special Mediterranean-like climate of Marin County. As with all Cowgirl cheeses, the flavor of Red Hawk changes depending on what’s growing in the pasture at that time of year. Whereas a commodity cheese will taste the same no matter the season, an artisanal one changes, even daily. Preparing each batch of handcrafted cheese is like creating a vintage of wine, but every day. What distinguishes Red Hawk, a triple-cream, is its pungent, sticky rind, colored orange by the presence of Brevibacterium linens, a species of bacteria. Most cheese makers who are going for this odoriferous type of cheese inoculate their milk with B. linens. This is not necessary at Cowgirl Creamery, where these bacteria are naturally present in the air. All that is needed is to wash the nascent rind of this small cheese with a brine solution. Nature takes care of the rest.

All three of these cheese makers create exceptional cheese showcasing the terroir of their region. A French word meaning “taste of place,” terroir was originally reserved for wine but has expanded to encompass a variety of artisanal foods and the way that soil, microflora, weather, terrain, traditional skills, and other factors shape their memorable flavors. While it is tempting to order these cheeses online, it is better to keep with the mission of real American cheeses and buy from local cheese makers. In this way, you can keep the renaissance going.

Learn More: Artisanal Cheese—Where, What, & How to Buy

Photos: Robyn Lehr