Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cheese: Dry Monterey Jack

Dry Monterey Jack cheese is a very hard, flaky cheese made in Sonoma, California, out of raw Guernsy (cow's) milk and aged 7 to 10 months.  
It is hand-formed in 8 pound wheels, like fresh Monterey Jack, placed in muslin sacks, cured in brine and rubbed with oil, pepper and cocoa which gives it its dark outward coating. 
The flesh is pale yellow and it is variously described as "nutty in taste," "sweet nutty," "dry but snappy; hints of caramel, a bit of sweetness," and "a milder, sunnier flavor than its Italian counterparts...clean, nutty-tasting." 
It is considered one of America's finest cheeses. It is also one of the 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die. In our own taste test, I found it to be the hardest cheese I've encountered - by far. I couldn't put a knife through it without putting my second hand on the top side of the blade and giving it a two-hand push. It was hard to chew, almost like soft wood. 
Judy actually preferred it over the other hard cheeses. She thought it tasted like dried out Monterey Jack cheese and had a Parmesan taste. Others in our tasting group described it as acidic and bitter. I found it not to be too strong and preferred the Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano Stravecchio. Almost better than the cheese are the variant stories on how it came to be made. One version ( is that a San Francisco wholesaler in 1915 was overstocked with Monterey Jack and salted it hoping to preserve it. He later found it had become hard, like fine Italian cheese. Another version ( is that during World War I, D.F. DeBernardi, a San Francisco cheese wholesaler left his oversupply of Monterey Jack in storage too long. Shipments of Parmesan and Romano were interrupted due to the War, so he found a market for this newly created hard cheese. Another version (Wikipedia) is that Dry Jack was developed by Peter Vella during World War II as Italian styled cheeses became difficult to obtain because of an embargo on Italy. Another version ( is that during World War I supplies of European cheeses, especially the hard Italian cheeses, were cut off. David Jack, a Monterey, California wholesaler, had a surplus of cheese he'd been keeping in storage. He started selling the aged product and Dry Jack was born. In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, dated September 27, 1995, "Dry Monterey Jack Cheese: What's Old is New Again," Sarah Koops Vanderveen gives the most convincing version, or at least the most detailed. In 1915, D.F. DeBernardi, a San Francisco wholesaler, ordered Monterey Jack cheese  and some Parmesan and Roman from Italy. The Monterey Jack didn't sell and as the foreign cheeses arrived, he put the Monterey Jack in his basement and had his workers coat it with oil and salt. As Italy entered World War I and shipments of food to the U.S. from Italy stopped, DeBernardi started looking for a replacement for the hard cheeses and remembered his stored Monterey Jack. He found it had become a delicious, hard, aged cheese. It became popular and by the 1930s 60 cheese factories in California were making it, including Vella Cheese Co. in Sonoma. Over the years, most of the manufacturers dropped out and by 1960 only eight companies were making the cheese. Today (1995) only two manufacturers, Vella Cheese and Rumiano Cheese Co. in Crescent City manufacture Dry Jack (I checked online and Rumiano still produces it today). The story for the creation of Monterey Jack cheese is even more varied. That one is for another day.  

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