Posted by: acooksca | 08/09/2009

The Story of Jack

Vella Cheese Co.

Vella Cheese Co.

This is the story of a true Californian…from an unassuming rural beginning to national fame, the loss of reputation at the hands of others to redemption by an immigrant family. Like so many before and since, Jack emerged from the collective energy of voyagers who came seeking a new life in The Golden State.

Steven Jenkins (a highly regarded cheese expert and author of the Cheese Primer) tells us that America has virtually no original cheeses. Our cheese mimics those that immigrated from Europe… with the exception of a few: Brick and Colby from Wisconsin and Jack Cheese from California.

Jenkins writes that a Scotsman named David Jacks created the original Jack Cheese in the 1890s near Monterey. It was a soft, gentle white cheese with an acidic tang, nearly rind less and weighed in at about 8 to 10 pounds. The wheels that Jacks produced matured enough in about a week to be shipped to eagerly awaiting San Franciscans. But Jacks was also known to be a good businessman and it is seems likely that he simply mass marketed a cheese that had been made in Monterey for years.

Descendants of Dona Juana Cota de Boranda claim their family originated Jack cheese. The grandchildren of Dona Boranda remember her process for making fresh cow’s milk cheese using a vice called a “jack” to press the cheese. The Boranda family was one of the first to come to Monterey in the early 1800’s. On the family property, behind the historic adobe built by Dona Boranda’s husband, stood the remains of a cheese factory. The family explains that Dona Boranda sold her cheeses to David Jacks who shipped them to San Francisco with his identifying “Jacks Cheese” stamped on the crates.

Other Spanish families from Alta California times would recognize Dona Boranda’s cheese as “Queso del Pais”, or country cheese. In fact, from the very founding of Monterey and the missions in the late 1700s cattle and milk were vital. Father Serra wrote in 1776 that milk was the “chief substance” of meals at Mission San Carlos in Carmel, close to Monterey. Records in The California Dairy Industry Historical Collection tell of Indian women being trained to make cheese at Mission San Gabriel in 1776. This would have been the simplest of Spanish-style country cheeses, the same Queso del Pais.

Early dairy production must have been quite limited. The scrawny Mexican cattle that free ranged over much of California before statehood were not dairy cattle but were raised for hides, tallow and meat. Families collected what milk they could consume in a day. But dairying was on its way west. By the late 1830s Americans were making that arduous trip across the Great Plains to California. Many had their family dairy cow tied to the wagon.

 
In the early 1850’s a population accustomed to an eastern diet of milk, butter and cheese flooded into California. By the 1860s fortunes were made by establishing dairy herds in Sacramento, the Greater Bay Area, North Coast and Monterey County. During the 1870s the Jersey cow, with its high butterfat milk, became the dominant breed and was a boon for cheese production. It is not hard to imagine Dona Boranda and other families who made traditional Spanish style country cheese acquiring dairy cows. Their cheese would improve and they could now make enough to sell.

It appears that Jack Cheese had been evolving in the Monterey area for 100 years before David Jacks arrived from Scotland. But his talent for marketing made the cheese famous. Jacks expanded the production, buying from many small farms and branding it with his name. Hundreds of pounds of what was soon called Jack Cheese (the “s” was dropped from Jack’s) sailed to wholesalers in San Francisco. Shipping records show that in the 1890’s Jack’s Cheese had even made its way to the East Coast.

Shortly after the start of World War 1 imports of aged European cheese into the U.S. stopped. Cheese sellers in San Francisco started requesting firmer cheese that could be aged like the imported grating cheeses their customers were used to. Monterey’s Jack producers lowered the butter fat to half-skim, aged wheels just enough to be shipped and sent them to The City for cheese mongers to age.

East Coast buyers learned of this dry domestic grating cheese and swamped the small Monterey industry for “dry Jack”. Dairies outside California started to make a Jack-style cheese and the market became so over-supplied with inferior quality that confidence for a hand made high quality Jack was destroyed.

To try and save the local industry, the UC Berkeley College of Agriculture published a circular in 1919 aimed at restoring “real Jack Cheese”.  It described how to make a quality high fat soft table Jack and a part-skim dry grating Jack. But the trend toward industrially produced food exploded during the 1920’s and took Monterey Jack with it. Original hand made Jack needed a savior and found one in another recent immigrant to California.

The Vella brothers, Tom and Joseph, arrived in Sonoma from Sicily in the 1920s. Tom grew a reputation as a careful cheese maker while working for Sonoma Mission Creamery. A group of local dairymen asked if he would put together a cheese making factory if they guaranteed all the top quality milk he could use. Tom brought in another cheese maker, bought equipment and in 1931 opened in an old stone building in Sonoma.

For the next 50 years Tom managed the Vella Cheese Co., expanding the line from the original high moisture semi-soft Jack Cheese to include flavored Jacks and a partially dried version called Mezzo-Secco. His legacy as a great Californian cheese maker is secured, however, by Vella Dry Monterey Jack. After salting and drying for several weeks each wheel is rubbed with a mixture of black pepper (which inhibits bacteria and fungi), vegetable oil (prevents cracking as the wheel ages) and unsweetened cocoa (keeps the oil from penetrating the cheese while young).

Vella’s Bear Flag Brand cheeses are still hand made in small batches in the same stone building off the Sonoma square. Tom’s son Ignacio (Ig) now heads the company. Ig Vella is an enthusiastic promoter of California artisan cheeses. He is deeply involved with cheese education and has received the life time achievement award from the top U.S. cheese organization, the American Cheese Society.

Vella Dry Jack has a glistening dark brown rind from the oil and cocoa which doesn’t affect the cheese’s flavor. At 8 months of age this cheese has a fuller, nuttier taste then Monterey Jack. Its firm texture makes it suitable for grating as well as a table cheese. Like the younger cheese, Dry Jack is very versatile, used in soufflés, sandwiches and recipes where traditional Jack is expected such as tacos and quesadillas. Vella also makes a Special Select Dry Jack, aged 1 year and Golden Bear Dry jack, aged 2 years. If you can’t find Vella Bear Flag Brand Jacks in your market take a drive to visit their small shop in the stone building off the square in Sonoma or order online.

Sources:

Cheese Primer: Steven Jenkins, Workman Publishing, New York. 1996

The Monterey County Historical Society: http://www.mchsmuseum.com/cheese.html

Dairying in California through 1910: by Robert L. Santos, USC, Stanislaus

Jack Cheese: H. S. Baird, UC Berkeley College of Agriculture, 1919

Order cheese from the Vella Cheese Co. website at:  http://www.vellacheese.com/

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