Sweet Dreams Are Made of Cheese
Is it possible for sunshine to come pouring out of a telephone? That’s the question I found myself pondering as I heard Peggy Smith + Sue Conley pick up the other end of the call. These two lifelong friends – and food-to-table pioneers, and all-around legends – speak with such warmth and humor about each other, their profession and love of all things cheese that you half expect a ray of light (or at the very least, a double rainbow) to come along with it.
Peggy + Sue joke that it all began in the 70s with a hippie trip to San Francisco via a baby blue Chevy – but that’s like saying Steve Jobs was just a guy with a garage.
In the decades since, these two college friends have worked in some of San Francisco’s most famous kitchens; launched Tomales Bay Foods (which connected West Marin farms and the Bay Area’s top chefs); done pioneering work in sustainable, organic and other such food terms we now see everywhere; and launched Cowgirl Creamery, the beloved artisanal cheese brand that has won dozens of awards, is sold in hundreds of stores around the world (including four of their own), and has sold over 2,000 tons of cheese.
But you know what? Within seconds of them picking up the phone, these two legendary ladies crack up at a joke, and you sense the warmth that has fueled all their extraordinary adventures. Bottom line, these two are BFFs who found a shared passion, leaned into it and now find an entire industry following in their footsteps.
To celebrate National Cheese Lover’s Day, we asked Peggy + Sue to name the cheeses that have shaped their lives. The result: Remembrances, laughs and tales of disastrous mistakes that turned into triumph.
“Well, I have to include my grandmother’s recipe for cheese wafers, because that right there is my childhood,” remembers Sue, lighting up when asked about the start of her relationship with cheese. “It was a Southern treat, a Christmas recipe. Instead of a sweet cookie, she’d make savory wafers with pecan and a little bit of cayenne to give it a snap.”
Peggy, meanwhile, offers an answer so honest that you can feel her blushing through the phone. “My earliest cheese experiences revolved around Velveeta!” she laughs. “Everybody’s gotta start somewhere. I don’t know if I’d admit to being in love with it, but it was always in my mac and cheese.”
Her love for cheese didn’t truly develop until 1980, after she submitted her resume a dozen times to a legendary restaurant that finally became her home.
“My love for cheese came from working for chef Jean Pierre Moulle at Chez Panisse,” says Peggy, who spent her years cooking at the restaurant famous for pioneering California cuisine with organic, locally-grown ingredients. “Every other year, we would travel to Bordeaux during the Vinexpo and we became very close with Jean D’Alos, an affineur.”
Using the French term for a master craftsman who oversees the cheese aging process, she recalls trips where she and Sue would explore D’Alos’ cheese caves – the perfect setting to find a life’s calling. “It’s an extraordinary, 15th century building that has catacombs leading all the way down to the river – each layer of elevation with its own climate, ideal for aging different cheeses,” she marvels. “One day, on the third level of the basement, he broke into a 3-year-old Comte and gave us this reserve sherry that went with it. The taste, the environment, the experience – that moment was an epiphany.”
It was around this time that Sue was finishing up 11 years of her own at Bette’s Oceanview Diner, a Berkeley staple where she served as co-owner. After moving to Point Reyes Station, she met Ellen Straus of Straus Family Creamery – and was inspired by a growing dairy and organic farm community that would similarly draw in Peggy.
“Cottage cheese was one of the cheeses we learned to make,” remembers Sue. “It was so delicious coming right out of the vat – cottage cheese hadn’t seemed that interesting before, but I’ve since come to realize that it’s one of the most difficult cheeses to make well, and if it is made well it’s just delicious.”
Peggy + Sue launched Cowgirl Creamery in 1997 and initially focused on soft cheeses – but soon enough, they were attempting to raise the bar.
“When we moved into aged cheeses, we knew it would be another level of complexity,” remembers Peggy. “With fresh cheese, you know if it works right away – if you make a mistake, you can try again the next day. For aged cheese, it takes months or years to develop and wait to see if it’s a success.”
Now dubbed The Cowgirls (legend has it they chose the company’s name after watching two women on horseback pulling up to their Point Reyes store, a renovated hay barn), they were eager to create a cheese that would showcase the milk from Straus, the first organic creamery in the United States. The result became Mt. Tam, one of their most popular cheeses.
“We decided to create a triple crème, using the milk from the Straus farm – and make it the type of cheese that’s easy for anyone to like,” Peggy recalls with pride.
Mt. Tam also led to a most fortunate mistake. “Something got on the rind of a Mt. Tam, so I washed it and was going to throw it out; it looked gnarly,” says Sue, as Peggy chuckles at the scary story with the happy ending. “But our cheesemonger was brave enough to try it anyway, and said, ‘This is the best cheese we’ve ever made. Let’s do it again!’”
That cheese was dubbed Red Hawk, and today Cowgirl offers it alongside a dozen or so favorites, plus seasonal specialties and kits. But the one that will always hold a special place in the hearts of Lazy Dog is Wagon Wheel. We love it so much, in fact, that we built an entire dish around the smooth, sweet table cheese. It’s called the Cowgirl Cheese Dip + Pretzels, and its popularity was immediate – and seems to only be increasing, as the Fall menu favorite is now becoming a full-time menu addition.
“We wanted it to be a cooking cheese – the way Lazy Dog is using it – so we tested it at farmer’s markets for the longest time, just calling it ‘Batch Number…’ with whatever version we were up to,” Peggy says of Wagon Wheel’s humble origins. “Sometimes it would be too dry, other times too sharp, sometimes too moist. We’d have to let it age 75 days and then check to see if we’d finally captured the right flavor profile when it melted.”
So thanks, Northern California farmer’s market patrons, for helping Peggy + Sue taste test those early batches – and for offering your unfiltered opinion. “Here in San Francisco, thankfully, people are very vocal and don’t hold back,” says Peggy, cracking up Sue once again. “So when you ask for their opinion, it’s very helpful.”
With that, it’s time for these Cowgirls to wish us a happy National Cheese Lover’s Day and ride off into the sunset – a sun that, for a few moments after they hung up, I was still waiting to see shine through that phone.
Words by Larry Carroll
Image of Lazy Dog’s Cowgirl Dip + Everything Bagel Bites: Rebecca Simms
All other images, courtesy of Cowgirl Creamery
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