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Monday, November 07, 2011

A Visit to Straus Creamery & Cowgirl Creamery

Albert, Sue & Peggy
In the San Francisco Bay Area we are very lucky to have such incredible dairy products produced in our own backyard. Though many enjoy the milk from Straus Family Creamery and cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery very few have seen exactly where those products come from. Last week I got a chance to visit both, thanks to Cathy Strange, the Global Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods Market. While visiting California she took a small group of writers to visit both the dairy and the cheesemaking facility, at Tomales Bay and Petaluma. I learned what makes Albert Straus, Peggy Smith and Sue Conely such pioneers.

Straus cow
Albert Straus is a second generation dairyman. He took over his parents farm which was established in 1941. He transformed what was a struggling conventional dairy and converted it to the first organic organic dairy West of the Mississippi River in 1994. Despite all the challenges of running a dairy farm today it is thriving. In moving forward, he embraced many of the practices from the past, including using glass bottles, selling milk that is not homogenized and bringing back Jersey cows and Jersey crossbreeds. Jersey cows are smaller and produce less volume of milk so they were bypassed in favor of Holsteins but yield a richer, higher fat milk.

To be organic, all the feed must be organic and free of growth hormones rBGH and rBST, but Straus goes one step further, verifying that the feed is GMO free as well. The cows are milked twice a day, and the young calves live in clean and idyllic quarters with plenty of access to pasteurized milk which helps them grow to be particularly healthy and robust.

All power at the dairy is offset by a methane gas digester that takes waste from the cows and turns it into electricity.

Straus Family Creamery
Straus has led by example, encouraging many local dairies to "go organic." Now 50% of the dairies in Marin and Sonoma counties are organic.

cheesemaking at Cowgirl
Peggy Smith and Sue Conley co-founders of Cowgirl Creamery got into the cheese business, inspired by the Straus matriarch, and Albert's mother, Ellen Straus. Both women came from the restaurant world and began by creating fresh organic cheeses from Straus milk. They still make clabbered cottage cheese, creme fraiche, and fromage blanc, but what they are most known for are some of their unique aged cheeses, especially the soft ripened bloomy rind Mt. Tam, Inverness and my favorite, the luxurious triple cream washed rind Red Hawk, so pungent and buttery, which won best of show at the American Cheese Society in 2003.

aging cheese
Peggy and Sue work with local organizations like Marin Organic and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (where Sue is currently board chair) to ensure that farmland is protected.

Cowgirl Creamery cheese
At their main cheesemaking facility in Petaluma, not far from Straus dairy they use the freshest milk, and are particularly gentle with the cheese curds, creating very high quality cheeses.

Thanks Cathy! Come back and let's visit some more cheesemakers soon.

While Straus Family Creamery is not regularly open to tours, you can book ahead if you wish to visit Cowgirl Creamery or take a class.