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It's that time of year again. The summer cheeses are long gone and others have stepped in to take their place. Such is the case with Cowgirl Creamery's cheese, Pierce Point. The organic cheese from Point Reyes, California, comes around during the fall and stays through winter, when herbs from the cheese's namesake area are harvested and dried to become a coating for the cheese.
Cowgirl Creamery owners Peggy Smith and Sue Conley started their cheesemaking operation eight years ago in a renovated barn in the postage stamp-size town of Point Reyes Station, California. Point Reyes Station is part of the scenic Point Reyes National Seashore, which is a national park.
Like Cowgirl Creamery's other cheeses, Pierce Point begins with milk from the nearby Straus Family Dairy. The Straus dairy was California's and indeed the West Coast's first certified organic dairy. The whole milk is placed in the vat along with a small amount of cream and starter cultures. The latter readies the milk to become cheese as well as confer flavor to the final cheese. Vegetarian rennet is added to the milk, the result of which is to precipitate the curds and whey. The whey is then drained, and the remaining curds are hand-ladled into molds for further drainage.
After 24 hours, the nascent cheeses are brined for three hours (i.e. put in a saltwater solution) and then cured for 24 hours. Next, they are washed with the sweet wine known as moscato. The last step is to coat the cheeses with a special herb blend consisting of coriander, fennel, juniper berry, bay leaf, lemongrass, lemon balm, red clover, marigold, chamomile, and oat straw. These herbs are harvested from nearby Pierce Point, which is just past the quaint town of Inverness. The cheeses are matured for about three weeks before they are wrapped and sent to market.
A young Pierce Point is herbaceous and firm with mild buttery notes. A more mature Pierce Point becomes softer and creamier, and its buttery notes are more pronounced. It is a cheese that goes particularly well on a cheese tray as it is not only flavorful, but it also looks beautiful too.
In fact, Pierce Point is an extraordinary example of an herb-coated cheese. Unlike many cheeses to which herbs are added, Pierce Point is not dominated by the herbs but is enhanced by them instead. The herbs act as a savory counterpoint to the almost-sweet qualities in the cheese owing to the rich milk and the skills of cheesemaker Maureen Cunnie who manages to turn a vat of milk into consistent, flavorful and memorable cheeses every time.
Cowgirl Creamery's other cheeses, including Mt. Tam and Red Hawk, have both been award winners at the annual competition of the American Cheese Society. Mt. Tam won best soft-ripened cheese this year, and Red Hawk won Best of Show three years ago. That is an award considered the equivalent of "Best Picture" for the Oscars.
Smith and Conley probably had no idea that their vision of an organic cheese operation would take off as it has. Or if they did, they were no less than clairvoyant. What they've done is create consistently excellent cheeses - no easy feat given the capricious nature of cheesemaking - and successfully marketed them. Often in American cheesemaking, the cheese might be good, but the cheesemaker does not know how to market the cheese. The 'Cowgirls,' as some people affectionately call them, have figured both out in spades. We cheese lovers are all the luckier because of it.
For more information:
COWGIRL CREAMERY CHEESE SHOP AT THE FERRY PLAZA
1 Ferry Building, #17
San Francisco, CA 94111
Fax (415) 362-9355
Open 7 days a week
COWGIRL CREAMERY AT TOMALES BAY FOODS
80 Fourth Street
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
Phone (415) 663-9335
Fax (415) 663-5418
Wednesday through Sunday, 10am - 6pm