DAVID GREENE, HOST:
As with wine, in the world of cheese the ultimate mark of success is acceptance by the French. And that is exactly what Suse Conley and Peggy Smith got. They are the cofounders of Cowgirl Creamery. And in 2010, they were inducted into the Guild Internationale des Fromagers - among the first American cheesemakers to join its ranks. Cowgirl Creamery is now out with its very first cookbook. And so our own Renee Montagne paid a visit to the town on the Pacific Coast, north of San Francisco, where they make their famous cheese.
RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: We met up with Sue Conley and Peggy Smith at their creamery in Point Reyes Station - a postage stamp of a place, where the wind seems to let up only to let in the fog. We sat outside and chatted about their journey to the pinnacle of the cheese world. A journey that began at the University of Tennessee, where they became fast friends in the early '70s and continued a few years later on a road trip west to San Francisco.
And as you write, you drive your little car across the Golden Gate Bridge on July 4, 1976, which was the bicentennial. And at that very moment, unbeknownst to you, there was a revolution in food going on here in the Bay Area. So describe for us what that changing world was like.
PEGGY SMITH: Well, I'll start. Sue and I both cooked while we were in college, but it was nothing serious. You know, we worked at bars that now would be called pubs, where we did hamburgers and things like that. But when we came out to California, people were really interested in ingredients and techniques. And...
SUE CONLEY: ...And then the range of food that was available here, you know, the natural food, where you could buy things at the neighborhood co-op that were in bins and funky apples from somebody's tree. And, you know, it was just a much different food scene. So we both got interested in the profession of cooking. Also cheesemaking - when we started there were four or five cheesemakers in Sonoma and Marin and today there are 30.
JOHN TAYLOR: That building on the other side of those silos is our milking barn. And the cows will milk in there twice a day. And that's every day - on your birthday, on Christmas, when you're sick. It doesn't matter.
MONTAGNE: That's John Taylor of Bivalve Dairy, which he runs with his wife Karen, a sixth generation California dairy farmer.
TAYLOR: Right now is the middle of our pasture season - our grazing season. So the cows are going out twice a day out to pastures. So there's a lot of walking involved with these cows.
MONTAGNE: In spring, clovers, ryegrass and barley all make their way into the cows pasture buffet. That organic snacking yields some especially flavorful milk.
TAYLOR: As we taste the milk off of our ranch at certain times a year, they will have different flavors depending on the grass component. So when the cows go out to graze in the early spring and into the summer, there are some phenomenal flavors that come out. And ultimately what we're trying to do is partner up with Cowgirl, so that we can get the flavors into the cheese.
MONTAGNE: One cheese in particular - Red Hawk. This dairy provides the milk for that signature cheese with its reddish rind. Between the dairy and the dinner plate, the semi-soft cheese goes through quite a process. We picked up on it in the washing room at Cowgirl Creamery. Sue Conley helped me get suited up.
CONLEY: We have booties. We have hair nets that will keep all of your street grime out of our creamery. Come on in.
MONTAGNE: Inside the washing room, a group of workers are leaning over tubs of salty brine scrubbing off white, fluffy mold from small wheels of cheese.
CONLEY: That white mold - it's protecting the cheese in its first stage of aging. But it's also bringing in that beautiful white mushroom flavor. And then the red rind inparts an almost anchovy, beefy kind of complex favor.
MONTAGNE: Red Hawk has won a lot of awards and it was created by accident. In the early years of Cowgirl Creamery, a visiting cheesemonger from England help Sue and Peggy set up their shop. She brought along, that most British of cheeses, a Stilton, which contains microscopic mites on the rind to help age it. This cheesemonger set her cheese down next to a wheel of Sue's cheese.
CONLEY: And the mites jumped off of the Stilton onto my rind. And they started eating away at the white mold.
MONTAGNE: The mites started eating your white mold?
CONLEY: Yes. So I brushed them off. But what it did was it killed all of the white mold and encouraged a wild bacteria to grow, which is bacterium linen. So that bacterium just went wild and grew over all the cheese. And I just got frustrated and moved it to the back of the aging room.
MONTAGNE: And there it might have ended - the cheese tossed out - had not a few weeks later, their friendly English cheesemonger decided to give it a taste and pronounced what became the famous Red Hawk the best thing the cowgirls had ever made.
CONLEY: So what we're trying to do today is we're trying to repeat that mistake.
MONTAGNE: Mold, mites and wild bacteria - they all have their role in the making Red Hawk and a lot of great cheeses too, which gets us to a whole other subject - how to prevent storing cheese from turning into a science project. Naturally, the cowgirls have some tips. Here's Peggy.
SMITH: The first thing we say is only buy as much as you're going to eat in the next couple of days.
MONTAGNE: And the key to keeping cheese fresh is to immediately remove its plastic packaging and wrap it in wax or parchment paper. Sue puts it in the vegetable crisper, so it doesn't dry out. And then...
CONLEY: The other rule we have is that after you've left it for two weeks...
MONTAGNE: ...You've bought too much to eat.
CONLEY: You've bought too much because you couldn't follow Peggy's directions. So now you have like four expensive bits of dried cheese in your refrigerator. So we recommend never throwing that away - just grate them up and mix them in and make a grilled cheese 'cause we always think more than one cheese in a grilled cheese is really good.
SMITH: Yeah, evenly distribute it. But it's not heavy thick cheese, so when you bite into it, it's lighter but you get all those flavors.
MONTAGNE: Yum. Seems like time to head into the kitchen and a fragrant potato gratin is in the oven.
CONLEY: I think we should take the gratin out now. It looks like it's done.
MONTAGNE: Now this is...
CONLEY: Yukon gold potatoes and onions. It has Red Hawk and Parmesan cheese and a little bit of cream. When people smell Red Hawk they think, oh, my gosh, I can't eat that, it's too strong. So we thought, well, we'd put it in a potato gratin where it's really mellow. The cheese sort of melts into the potato 'cause it's a little bit porous. And I think it mingles more with the potato then just as a stand-alone. What do you think?
MONTAGNE: I'm guessing I should just say yum all afternoon.
CONLEY: Yum's good.
MONTAGNE: Potato gratin is one recipe in Sue Conley and Peggy Smith's book "Cowgirl Creamery Cooks."
GREENE: For more recipes and also photos of spring garlic and asparagus soup with fresh ricotta, visit NPR's food blog The Salt. This is NPR News.