Elizabeth led us to Cowgirl Creamery which is inside a restored barn, and now converted shop for several local food purveyors. Cowgirl Creamery is not only a ridiculously delicious stop, but an important one in the history of West Marin. Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, the founders of Cowgirl, brought craft-cheese making to an area that was historically only milk production. Cheesemakers were far and few, but with these ladies’ successful business growth, encouragement and training of other cheesemakers, gourmet cheese businesses are now top dog in this region and attract foodies from all over.
We sampled delicious pastries from Bovine Bakery and Cowgirl Creamery cheeses such as the popular and decadent, creamy Mt. Tam, pungent Red Hawk, seasonally herbed Devil’s Gulch, sweet Wagon Wheel and more. Honestly, I could have just sat at this first stop all day and stuffed my face and day dreamed of my future dreamjob as a cheese taster. Is that even a thing? With the promise of fresh bread, I managed to pry myself off the bench and venture outside to visit Brickmaiden Breads next door.
Our small group piled into the shedlike bakery. This compact bakery makes all of the bread for the town and local restaurants. It was clean-up day, and a young man scrubbed down equipment while a waft of flour was still in their air. Elizabeth showed us the amazing ‘modern’ brick oven that burned wood as the heat/baking source. What’s crazy is that ultra-techie Silicon Valley is about an hour away, but yet here I was in this remote rural location where cell service was iffy, buildings are on septic due to the lack of City services and burning wood is still the most efficient and cheapest way to create heat. I looked down at the opague powdery concrete floor. Cowboy boots would have been a solid choice. Black suede boots. I’m such a dummy.
In the back ‘yard’ of the bakery, there was a small rustic shed that is owned by Table Top Farms. No one was there to hawk their wares though, as this was one of several ‘honor system’ vegetable stands in town. Visitors simply pick out goodies, look at the price list, and deposit cashola into a wood box slat. The Table Top owners have several plots in the Point Reyes area and grow a gorgeous variety of seasonal, organic produce. Such a cool concept that every town should try to adopt!
After a quick spicy Chai stop at Bovine Bakery, we hopped in the van and headed to Marin Sun Farms. Good thing too, as I was getting tired from all that eating and needed a rest. Elizabeth spoke while she drove and told about the geography and more about how this magical area of food that was protected. In the early 60’s, the Federal Government made a large swath of westward land separated by the inlet a National Park. In the 80’s, rancher Ellen Straus and biologist Phyllis Faber met over their opposition to residential development in West Marin, which is land to the east of the inlet split. The result of their tireless efforts was Marin Agricultural Land Trust or MALT. (http://www.malt.org/). MALT has worked with 76 farming families to preserve more than 47,000 acres to date.
We parked at Marin Sun Farms which is a combo butcher shop/hip cafe’ in town. The beef sold here is grass-fed cattle and raised from sustainable practices. Elizabeth ordered up some food with her Sun Farm co-horts and out came a sampling of beef jerky that is also known as ‘beef candy’ for it’s heavily seasoned and sweetened coating. More food was ushered out: arugula salads with fresh beets and Pt. Reyes Blue Cheese, pork-lard fried brussel sprouts and an assortment of burgers made from goat, beef, bacon and lamb! I don’t eat red meat myself, but I do strongly support sustainable farming practices. Needless to say my husband was pretty stoked that there was more on the table for him. He was in absolute gourmet burger heaven. Elizabeth frequented a family cattle farm in her childhood years, and is a Stanford grad to boot, so she’s very farm savvy. She informed us that in order to farm sustainably and maintain grasslands, there should be 1 cow to 8 acres. That is a lot of land per cow! Although the cattle are moved around often to graze, the cows have an important job to the integrity of the grassland. As they eat and shorten the grass, they also *poop* and hence fertilize the ground as they moooove which is essential to the fast and healthy regrowth of grassland.
Fat and happy, it was time to get our buzz on. Literally! We stopped at Heidrun Meadery where the owner creates amazing champagne made from honey, water and yeast. Any hint of previous gloomy weather was blowing out fast, and sun warmed us as we sipped glasses of different mead champagne next to live bee hive boxes. Bees typically source their pollen from the plants and trees around them, so the owner gets honey that has flavors of specific plants and flowers to make his champagne. Some of the interesting champs to check out would be Oregon Radish Blossom (you can taste the tangy dry radish essence and it’s quite good), Orange Blossom, Macadamia Nut and Alfalfa.
What do you do after you have been well-fed and filled with champagne? Well, your trusty guide Elizabeth loads you in the comfy van and you are whisked up the west side of the inlet to beautiful Hog Island Oyster Farm! An early fall sky was starting to set in and a crisp breeze started to blow. Happy people were milling around Hog Island Oyster with purpose, and more importantly, with huge platters of oysters. Clearly we had just stumbled into some sort of special place on the planet. Huddled around picnic benches, guests were enjoying raw oysters & Bourbon BBQ’d oysters. Giant metal baskets sat at the end of each table piled high with glorious empty oyster shells. An outside bar served up local beers and wines, and there were community BBQs smoking away for people to roast up their own oysters. I can’t remember if there was music playing, because the sound of, “OMG OMG OMG OMG” in my head was fairly loud.
Elizabeth deftly set up a magazine-photo-ready cheese platter of triple cream brie, sourdough bread, dried fruit and chunky cookies on a rusted oyster shucking table. Some of the men-folk on the tour tried their hand at shucking oysters, as platters of raw and BBQ oysters arrived. I was probably full an hour ago, but there was no stopping me! The oysters at Hog Island are very clean and are about as perfect as I’ve ever had. The owners are marine biologists, so it’s no coincidence that these oysters are farmed in such a perfect way. They use secondary tanks after the oysters are pulled from the waterway, and let them filter out for awhile so any impurities are cleansed out.
For an area that is predominantly covered with grassland, no grass grows under these folks’ feet!
I can’t thank Elizabeth enough for such an amazing tour and I can highly recommend this super informative tour as an option for anyone who enjoys good food at a relaxing, yet fun pace. Many smart, forward-thinking woman have helped preserve and build the West Marin area into an area of sustainability and preservation. It’s exciting to know that Elizabeth is yet another strong, smart business savvy woman following in her predecessor’s footsteps to continue on the exciting legacy that they have started.
If you are visiting the area soon, make sure to check out West Marin Food & Farm Tours at http://www.foodandfarmtours.com There are other Marin tour options available as well, like farm visits with animals! Or, Elizabeth offers tours to New Orleans, Peru and Cuba! So fun!
Use Code RETURNING and get $20 off your booking!