Over the next month we’ll be taking a, shall we say, laid-back look at the California lifestyle with the help of our sponsor Hangar 1 Vodka.  This series, Hidden Gems, is an introduction to artists and artisans who produce work that pairs extraordinarily well with Hangar 1 cocktails.

Artisan cheese makers Peggy Smith and Sue Conley have been fixtures on the Bay Area food scene since they arrived on the West Coast as Tennessee college graduates in the 70s. They launched Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes, using the shop as a way to connect San Francisco’s best chefs with West Marin farmers producing the freshest local ingredients. The shop inspired them to get serious about cheese and they opened the Cowgirl Creamery, which has expanded into a veritable California cheese empire with two well-designed retail shops. They’ve made over 2,000 tons of award winning cheese by focusing on quality milk and artisanal techniques.

We thought it would be fun to combine two California power products, so we asked Sue to pair a cheese of her choice with each flavor of Hangar 1 Vodka. Of course, she used it as an opportunity to spread the love across the state with cheeses from other dairies whose techniques she truly believes in. Read on for the pairings, plus Sue’s take on quirky cheesemongers and where to learn more about the fine art of cheese. Get your vodka out of the freezer and prepare your taste buds for something more special than the old standby of wine and cheese.

The triple cream MT TAM cheese pairs exceptionally well with Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka.

Wine is the go-to beverage when it comes to cheese pairings. How can vodka enhance (or reduce) the flavor of cheese?

Like wine or beer, these vodkas from Hangar 1 will reduce or enhance the flavors in cheese. Big, full flavored cheeses might clash with the subtleties in the vodka, while mellow, creamy cheeses will compliment. 

Hangar 1 Vodka and cheese pairings:

For the Kaffir Lime Vodka, we recommend light and tangy flavors found in fresh or young aged goat cheeses—try Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove.

Goat cheese will pair well with the Mandarin Blossom Vodka, but to balance the slightly sweeter notes of mandarin, we recommend MT TAM, a triple cream cow milk cheese, from our own Cowgirl Creamery.

To complement the subtle flavors in Buddha’s Hand Citron Vodka, try a fresh sheep milk ricotta from Bellwether Farms (Sonoma County), baked on toast with fig jam.  

Hangar 1 Straight is a good complement to a variety of cheeses and could be served at the end of the meal with three or five cheeses. It would be difficult to find cheeses that do not complement the flavors in Hangar 1 Straight – it has a lot of versatility.

Is there a specific cocktail you’re looking forward to sipping this summer?

We don’t fool around with creative cocktail concoctions, preferring the summer standards. Our favorites are: vodka tonic, Bloody Mary, Campari and soda.

How does living in the Bay Area inspire you?

The Bay Area is a wonderful place to be if you happen to love good, healthy food. When we moved here in 1976, we found a place that was alive with innovation in sustainable agriculture and progressive politics. We are fortunate to have access to a variety of fresh produce, year round. The chefs and cheesemakers who comprise our community are some of the hardest working, quirkiest, fun loving folks we know. We provide a conduit between producers and consumers that makes our work challenging, interesting, and extremely satisfying every day.

What’s your favorite way to serve cheese?

With seasonal fruits and crusty bread.

What’s the best way for a curious cheese novice to learn more?

Hang out at your favorite cheese counter and taste as many cheeses as allowed by the cheesemonger. Visit local producers and never miss a farmers market opportunity at home and when on vacation. There is always a local gem, especially in the fresh cheese category.

Editor’s note: The Cowgirl Creamery website has a cheese library link with in-depth information on a few hundred different kinds of cheese.

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