Touring Cowgirl Creamery

As I drive through the rolling green hills I imagine that California happy cows are their happiest right now. The pastures are lush with fresh, green grass and weeds, tasty feed until the heat of summer sucks the life and chlorophyll out and the hills turn dry and brown. I wonder how that makes the milk change in flavor during the different seasons. 

These bovine thoughts are running through my head because I am on my way to Petaluma to take the Cowgirl Creamery tour. The first time I heard the name Cowgirl Creamery was when their cheese was named as one of Oprah's favorite things. I soon tasted and fell in love with their triple cream Mt. Tam myself. I had been looking at their website one day when I discovered they offer tours and classes.

I am the first to arrive at a rather non-descript warehouse for the 11:30 tour. The Petaluma facility makes a majority of the cheeses, but does not have a retail facility. Their tours are on Wednesdays. The original Cowgirl Creamery location is in Point Reyes, where an old barn was converted into the a retail space back in 1997. There are classes at that location.

Vivien Straus is setting up the cheese tasting items preparing for the tour. Soon the other guests arrive until we are a group of about twenty. Vivien introduces herself as a member of the Straus family, as in, the Straus Family Creamery dairy that I have a glass bottle of milk of in my refrigerator. The Straus dairy was the first certified non-GMO and fully organic dairy west of the Mississippi. Their dairy has about 250 cows and is the primary milk supplier to Cowgirl Creamery.

Vivien starts with the history of the area starting in the early 1800s, the creation of the dairy region around Tomales Bay at the turn of the century, and how these dairies thrived with the terrain as well as the influx of people after the Gold Rush. Her family started their Straus Family Creamery business in the 40s and in the late 90s the dairy started supplying to Cowgirl Creamery. 

Cowgirl Creamery actually first started out as a marketing company for the area's cheese producers. Founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith showcased local cheeses and a few from around the country and Europe before starting to create their own cheese.

The first cheese was a clabbered cottage cheese made with non-fat curds and mixed with a creme fraiche. Vivien gave us a taste with some fresh strawberries. I've never been a cottage cheese fan. I never liked the squeakiness of the curds. This was lovely. It was fresh, mild, and the curds were tender. This was a cottage cheese I could like.

Cowgirl Creamery won a blue ribbon from the American Cheese Society in 2005 and continued to win awards with each additional cheese they added. They now have three fresh cheeses and seven aged ones. There two most recent additions, Inverness and Wagon Wheel, are the first to use animal based rennet.

We all gathered around a table as Vivien explained the basics of cheesemaking. There are four main ingredients: milk, culture, rennet, and salt. 

Milk is simple enough. You can use cow, sheep, goat, buffalo, even camel. Each type of milk will have different amounts of butterfat and flavor. Vivien explained that Jersey cows are prized for their higher butterfat milk. It is creamier and yellower than the Holsteins'. Cowgirl Creamery uses only cows' milk and uses Chileno Valley Jersey Dairy milk as well as the milk from the Straus dairy.

Cultures vary for each type of cheese. For example, brie style cheeses, which Mt. Tam is one, all use the same blend of cultures. All cheddars would use a different set of cultures.

separation of curds and whey

Rennet is an enzyme that solidifies the proteins in the milk and makes the liquid whey separate away. Rennet is found in the stomach lining of young ruminant animals. Vivien explains that by the young animal drinking its mother's milk, it would solidify in their stomachs allowing them to take a longer time to digest the nutrients from the milk. These days there are vegetable based rennets as well, such as from thistle.

Salt can be added by either mixing it into the cheese or rubbing it onto the outer surface as the cheese is aging. As the cheese ages, the salt gets absorbed through the rind.

Vivien had poured rennet into milk and we saw how the milk had separated into the liquid whey and the solid, yet soft, curd. The curds needed to be cut next. Some cheeses require a large curd, others small. The curd size influences the absorption of culture, salt, flavorings and the amount of oxidization and speed of maturation. 

After the curds are cut, they are scooped into forms and pressed to squeeze out more whey. The cheese will sit in the molds until they can hold their shape and enough whey is released. Then they are turned out of the molds and allowed to start aging.

We looked through the windows to the work area and watched as big tanks of curd were pumped into forms. I asked how much milk became how much cheese. The answer, of course, varies, but here they were getting a pound of cheese for each gallon of milk. There were 800 pounds of milk in a day's delivery to the creamery.

The Cowgirl cheeses age in a room at 50 degrees and 95 percent humidity. They are flipped to ensure that they don't get heavier on one side. After two weeks they get wrapped because otherwise they would continue to 'inflate' in size.

Here you see three carts of aging cheese. The first was freshly made, the second was one week, and finally two weeks. The two week cheeses are definitely puffy.

fresh cheese
2-week old
We got to taste each of these different aged cheeses. The fresh was very  yellow and you could still see the separation of some curds. It was mild and bland.  The second cheese was more solid, cream colored, had a slight bloom on the surface and a mild nutty flavor. 

The two-week old cheese had a considerable puffy bloom on the surface and a creamier interior. You could now taste it as the Mt. Tam you are used to. The bit of cheese closest to the rind was more creamy and got more solid as you moved to the center of the cheese. If you allow it to age a few weeks more, the enzymes and microbes working in the cheese would continue to work inward transforming the cheese as it goes. People will vary on the amount of transition they like their cheese as the flavor and texture will continue to change. Some cheeses, like Manchego, will get harder as they age while others like brie and Mt. Tam will get softer as they age.

Our tour was ending as we watched the workers wrap and label the cheeses before they get shipped out. 

We each got a goodie bag, or rather a small cooler, which included a Mt. Tam and a Fromage Blanc and a cheese knife to take home. The goodie bag itself was worth the $30 tour price. After all, a Mt. Tam in the store can cost $12-15.  

Wednesday midday tours might be a bit of an inconvenience for most people, but if you have a Wednesday free and want to get out of town, a day trip to Petaluma is a good way to go. A stop for the Cowgirl Creamery tour is also worth it. Buy your tickets to the Cowgirl Creamery tour or classes online and then think about how the happy cows' milk will become happy cheeses.

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