Nearly forty years ago, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith headed out to San Francisco where they worked at some of the Bay Area's finest restaurants.
Then, in the 1990s, as an artisan food movement was just beginning to take off, they bought a renovated hay barn in the town of Point Reyes.
The barn featured a small cheese making room, so they decided to make cheeses under the name Cowgirl Creamery, using milk from a nearby dairy. Two decades and 2,000 tons of cheese later, Sue and Peggy really know their stuff.
They recently published a book called Cowgirl Creamery Cooks, which features an excellent chapter on how to best prepare a cheese course. The two cheesemakers joins the show from member station KQED in San Francisco.
On why they devoted an entire cheese to preparing a cheese course:
"We wrote this chapter so that we could calm everyone down about approaching the cheese counter. We are recommending that you go to a place where you can taste the cheese and there's someone behind the counter who can answer questions and guide you. It really helps to have a point of view going in. Like, I want to have a cheese course that is nothing but California cheeses. Or I want to have a cheese course that shows all the different milks and maybe two cheese from each category, or I want to have a cheese course with all soft-ripened bloomy rind cheeses. If you approach with that surety, it'll be easy to engage with the cheese monger and get cheeses from those categories that might be interesting for your guests."
On how many cheese you should serve in a cheese course:
Peggy: "I always go with an odd number, so I would say you could have just one stellar cheese that you want to showcase and have an accompaniment with that. Then I would go to three, and from three I would go to five. If you're going to two, it's kind of either or, but if you have three, it really demonstrates that you want people to have a selection and taste that way. If you move to five it would give you more options within the categories you've chosen to work within."
On how to pair your cheese with other food items:
Sue: "If you think about what is predominant in a certain cheese you can accent your presentation with something like almonds and nuts for your sheepsmilk cheeses. Even a piece of chocolate with aged Gruyere or Conte (?), because that chocolate flavor comes through in those styles. We also, in our book, have a picture of stones and shells, and those kind of mineralities come through. I'm not suggesting you serve stones."
Peggy: "What we do is in tasting the cheese, I usually think, OK do I want to accent a flavor that I'm finding in the cheese, or have sort of an opposition to it that brings a new flavor element when you're tasting both of the things together. If you're serving a sheep's milk cheese, which is generally a little bit nutty, that's a good time to serve nuts or its also a good time to serve something that is really fruity and sweet, something like a cherry compote that brings out the sweetness and minimizes the nut flavor in the cheese, but it's a slighter accent where you bring the fruit forward."
On whether or not to eat the rind:
Peggy: "Everyone thinks I'm a little bit prissy, but I don't eat the rinds. I eat the cheese that's right up to the rind, but I always think of the rind as being the protector of the cheese inside. Sometimes I find that the rinds are a little bit bitter and I think they might compromise the flavor of the cheese. Sue: I like to enjoy the rind, but I agree that they are there to protect the cheese as it ages. If it's a very old cheese it's probably not going to enhance your experience. So what we do, we that eat the rinds, is we eat the interior first, have a little nibble on the rind, and see whether its going to be enhancing the experience and then go for it."
On how to prepare the cheese for serving:
Sue: "I like to separate the cheese when storing, so if I get a cheese in plastic, which its also sold in plastic so that the customer can see it, I always unwrap it, scrape it with a knife to get any kind of oil that surfaces and then wrap it in wax paper and put it into a baggy and seal it up so that it has a little bit of a moist environment. Put it away from any kind of fan that might be in the refrigerator. I take it out about three hours before serving because I find that if it comes down to a room temperature, it develops a nice crust on the rind and just a much more unctuous flavor when its room temp."