Cheese of the month May 2014: Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove/California, USA

This a monthly series which I have been publishing for years. You can subscribe here, to get the latest cheese delivered directly on to your screen. 

I’ve told the story many times during the last month, touring the northeast of the US with cheese and new book baby in tow: the reason why I got involved so deeply, with all my heart and soul (and hopefully brain too), with the new German cheese was in fact an American cheese tasting. And that’s why my cheese of the month is Humboldt Fog, a goat cheese from northern California.

Foto 5So here’s the story: way back it was, only days after 9/11, at the Slow Food Cheese fair in Bra/Piedmont, Italy. I had very recently decided to be a real, free-lance, full-time food and wine journalist, and I was looking for stories, and made it somehow to Bra in spite of the annoying Italian love for „sciopero“ (strike) and felt awkward and unexperienced and unprofessional…

Ah well, you get the picture. When I finally arrived, all the interesting tastings and talks were booked out. I looked at the decidedly non-cool leftovers and decided to go for „American goats and sheep milk cheeses“ – just for a laugh. Now, you Americans, before you take this personal – this was 13 years ago, and American cheese from the European point of view was sliced stuff, full stop. Very similar to German Riesling’s standing in the US until quite recently…

Alright, off I went, expecting a fun story, a joke… and then there was Rob Kaufelt, of Murray’s Cheese in NY, presenting six absolutely excellent, distinctive, delicious cheeses. I felt so humbled… and went up to him and apologized after the tasting. At which he looked at me and said: „Why are you apologizing? You didn’t misbehave?!“ And I told him about my prejudices, and he said: „Well, this is a very recent phenomenon. For a long time, our cheeses were wrapped in plastic, they looked like plastic and they tasted like plastic…“

MaryKeehn CypressGroveChevre

I promised myself there and then to visit as many of these cheese producers as possible, as soon as possible. And I did, and it opened my eyes for what was going on much nearer to home… The one producer I didn’t visit on my first real cheese trip, in 2003 (quite an adventure, before cheese knew about the hospitality industry, and before GPS), was Mary Keehn, in the very north of California. She actually discouraged me to drive all the way up to McKinleyville from Sonoma, and she was probably right – I had no idea how large that state is… But oh, in retrospect, what a historic moment I missed.

And with that we finally come to the point of this month’s cheese: Humboldt Fog. Now, I can already see some of my English-speaking cheese buddies haughtily shrugging it off – she’s succumbed to the seductive forces of the powerful large market volumes… This is not a small-farm-handcrafted-cuty-cheese anymore. True. But it is still delicious, and it has paved the way for so many others. Mary Keehn was seduced by the good life, back in the 1970s, like so many others, and she had goats for fresh milk, and she started to make cheese… And she came up with the idea of putting a thin layer of vegetable ash, like in Morbier. Nevertheless, Humboldt Fog is not about gimmicky ideas, because Mary Keehn also knew how to work with those goats and their milk, making for a silky, delicately citrussy cheese that up to the present day melts on your tongue like fresh snow.

I remember my first stay in San Francisco after that Bra experience, looking at the selection of an outlet of the Cowgirl Creamery. I bought a piece of Humboldt Fog (obviously named after the climatic-geographical features of that area), stepped back out on the street, opened the paper bag, and yes, ate it all there and then, and went back in and got another piece. In 2010 the Swiss company Emmi bought Mary Keehn’s Cypress Grove – but Humboldt Fog is still paving the way for so many other, „small“ producers and cheeses – and it’s still delicious.

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