Some Old Friends Say 'Cheese'

(Robert A. Reeder)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Sue Conley has more than 80 first cousins in the Washington area. And that just happens to be the number of cheeses available at the new cheese shop she co-owns in Northwest Washington.

Conley, who hails from Chevy Chase, and Peggy Smith of Springfield, both 53, are the owners of the famed Cowgirl Creamery. In 1976 they moved to California and later established their preeminent artisanal cheese business in rural Point Reyes Station. The newest store, at 919 F St. NW, is their first venture outside Northern California.

And with the dearth of retail food outlets in Penn Quarter, an area flush with condominium growth, the arrival of a 1,350-square-foot specialty market is significant. "We understand this area and wanted to have a store where our families are," says Smith, who said she is "encouraged by the enthusiasm of the customers this past week."

The sleek shop, with beautiful wood-topped counters of bay laurel, stocks its own aged and fresh organic cow's-milk cheeses as well as select farmstead cheeses made in the United States and Europe.

Cowgirl's bestseller is called Mt. Tam. Named for the Bay Area's Mount Tamalpais, it's a smooth and creamy triple-cream with a rich golden color. In 2004, the American Cheese Society awarded it first prize in the mold-ripened category. Earlier this year, Conley and Smith were inducted into the James Beard Foundation Who's Who of Food & Beverage in America.

In addition to cheese, the D.C. location carries a selection of products that go nicely with cheese, such as dry-aged meats, honey, preserves, crackers and local breads. Of special note is the peppery, Tuscan-style McEvoy olive oil from Marin County that customers can decant from a 70-gallon stainless steel drum in the shop. The owners hope to have a wine department in place by August featuring selections from the Washington area and California.

For Conley and Smith, the world of cheese and cheesemaking came after successful restaurant careers. The two became friends at the University of Tennessee and, after graduation, bought an old van and set off for San Francisco.

"Both of us got caught up in the California food revolution. So much was going on," says Conley, who opened Bette's Ocean View Diner, a retro breakfast and lunch restaurant in Berkeley. Noted for large portions, fresh local ingredients and great pizza, Bette's had a major impact on the redevelopment of the city's industrial section.

Smith worked for 17 years as a chef for the celebrated organic pioneer Alice Waters in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, also in Berkeley. "It was fabulous, always a learning experience," says Smith. "There was a real collaboration, working with farmers and livestock people, creating a different menu every day."

In 1994 the women bought an old hay barn in remote Point Reyes Station, in west Marin County. Said Conley: "I said, 'Peggy, let's buy this barn and make a celebration of local agriculture.' " The ultra-laid-back town, 40 miles north of San Francisco, is set in a breathtaking coastal dairy and ranching region of lush grassland at the entrance of Point Reyes National Seashore.

Their "celebration" created Tomales Bay Foods, a source for their favorite regional foods and the home of Cowgirl Creamery. And now the creamery has an East Coast home as well.

Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are available at Cheesetique in Alexandria and some Whole Foods Markets.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company