Life On The Wire: An American Original
The cheese that started it all, the cheese that was one of the first crowned an “American Original,” that was both a reward and thrown gauntlet.
Cheesemaking in the US traveled with immigrants from the old country, it wasn’t written down any where or tucked into a suitcase; it came over in the hearts, memories and the hardworking hands of those seeking a new life. Stepping onto new land, or going somewhere you’ve never been doesn’t mean that one is instantly a new person inside and out. We carry our history, memories, culture, and our skills wherever we go; and we bring the memory of food because it takes up no room in a suitcase or causes our backs to bend under the weight.
I’m talking about “Just like Mama used to make.”
For most of American history, or as British/French/Spanish/Dutch territory, we were making cheese like our ancestors did--with maybe a few tweaks as they adapted to the new world. Our first contribution of note to the cheese world was industrialized cheese aka commodity cheese aka factory cheese, when Jesse William in 1851 opened the world’s first cheese plant in Rome, New York. Yup, you read that right, every block of cryovac’d block cheddar (and many others) of dubious age and quality all are because of an American. But I digress.
The point I was trying to make was that America didn’t really enter the cheesemaking game until the mid 1800’s and though it was revolutionary it didn’t exactly win us any long term admiration. Nor did the game-changing Kraft Processed American cheese, though it is a staple in millions of homes; it took a gold rush and a world war.
In the late 1700’s there was a Franciscan monastery in what is now Monterey that, like monasteries all over the world, was making cheese for the monks to eat and to sell to the locals. This was Queso del Pais aka “country cheese” which is the equivalent to table wine; uncomplicated and meant to be eaten everyday. After the monastery closed the locals started making the cheese themselves, and then an enterprising man named Dave Jacks (who was making queso del pais with the milk of fourteen farms) started shipping his cheese all over the country. His biggest consumers were his fellow Californians, especially the miners that were flooding west in the search for gold; cases of cheese would be shipped with the town of origin and the maker’s name on the side. Monterey Jacks. Over time the “s” was dropped and thus it is now know (that’s also kinda how Stilton got its name btw) and frequently the Monterey part is also dropped.
Tom Vella arrived in California in the 1920’s and worked for Sonoma Mission Cheese for several years then in 1931 he was approached by local dairymen who asked posed the question: would he be willing to open his own cheese factory if they gave him all the high quality milk he needed. The answer was yes and Vella Cheese Company(link) was founded and made jack, cheddar, and italian style cheeses.
Tom wasn’t the first to start aging out jack cheese, the precise origin is a bit murky, but he was one of the first to do it intentionally and during WWII and the years after when we couldn’t get Italian Parmgiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano (Italy was an axis power aka “the enemy”) Americans were trying to find a hard table cheese that they could use instead. And a wonderful alternative it is indeed.
The American Cheese Society defines the term “American Original” as thus:
This category defines cheeses recognized by ACS as being uniquely American in their original forms, with a recipe that originated in the Americas. There is no restriction with the category as to milk type, texture, moisture content, method of ripening, or age. Examples include Monterrey Jack, Dry Jack, Brick Cheese, Colby and Teleme.
And that’s what Vella’s Dry Jack is, an American Original that was an adaptation by cheesemakers to a community and time that demanded something they could no longer have, and by creating a new style of cheese they’ve redefined American Cheese.
You’ll notice that the cheeses given as example (with the exception maybe of Teleme) are cheese that are well-known, wide-spread and often overlooked by turophiles (that's a fancy name for cheese connoisseur, for those of you reading at home). They’re ingredients first, or most often last, you never see them on cheese plates at restaurants or given a shout-out accompanied by a drool inducing photo on Instagram. But Vella Dry Jack (and the others) deserves the shout outs and accolades, it deserves to be featured on cheese plates and in this day and age where everyone wants cheese with “crunchies” in them, it deserves to have pictures posted on every social media there is with people hashtagging it as #cheeseporn, #imobsessed, #icantstopeatingit #cheesediamonds etc.
The milk comes from the nearby Merten’s Dairy (like it has for the past 20 years) which is only six miles away, the herd is mostly Holsteins with some Guernseys, every day. After the cheese is made (ok, a third of the way made) it is hand-scooped into cheese cloth by hand and tied and placed on racks where the wheel are pressed to expel more moisture; the after a brief dip in a brine bath (it helps form a rind) they’re placed on racks for about five weeks. At the end of those five weeks, each wheel of cheese is given, by hand, a protective coating of soybean oil, cocoa and pepper and then aged for anther thirty-six weeks before they’re ready to be released into the world.
Vella Dry Jack is both a mild cheese and an extremely flavorful one, its familiar enough and just enough off the beaten path that anyone from the cheese novice to the self proclaimed turophiles will be happy. Firm and crumbly with a dense paste that is studded with tyrosine crystals that manages to not be crazy salty; and that the thing you notice almost right off, that its not salty its actually very buttery. Cut it into wedges and drizzle it with cactus honey or an aged balsamic (or even a truffle balsamic), slice it thin and put it in a roast beef sandwich, shave it ontop of ice cream.
During the late 60’s into the early 70’s, American artisan cheese was dying thanks in part to WWII! Post-war America was hell on the dairy industry, we sent the boys off to war and cheesemaking was streamlined and focused for the war effort (hello processed cheese, aka kraft singles and velveeta) and after the war was over the boys that did come home didn’t necessarily go back to the cheese vat. Does this sound familiar? we’ve mentioned it several times, most prominently in our piece of Appleby’s Cheshire. Ig Vella kept making cheese through it all, and when other cheesemakers or farmers were getting out of the dying industry he pulled on his wellies and continued to hand-make dry jack, among others.
It took a group of women and some goats to get the American cheese scene back to the farm and create a new wave of American Originals, but that’s a blog post for another day.
Ig Vella was a cheesemaking legend, he’s frequently mentioned by cheesemakers today, as an inspiration, as a teacher, and as a game changer. Without Ig Vella pulling his wellies on everyday for more than thirty years when the only cheese people wanted were velveeta or slices or cans of desiccated parm, we might not have Red Hawk, Coupole, Dunbarton Blue, or Harbison.
But I’m greedy, I want more! More American Originals that change the way the rest of the world looks at American cheese. And one of the ways we can do that is by supporting American cheesemakers; stop sneering at American bloomy rinds because they’re not French Brie, stop the indignant sniff when we suggest something like Vella Dry Jack in place of a Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino, stop wincing when we suggest a Vermont mountain cheese instead of Comte or Gruyere. American cheeses deserve their place on the plate, especially Vella Dry Jack.
The Fine Print:
Vella's Dry Jack
Milk: Pasteurized Cow Milk
Age: 7-10 months
Price: $19.99/ lb