Produced since 1931 by the Vella family in Sonoma County, California, Dry Jack is a true American original.
According to Ig Vella, who owns and runs the business, Monterey Jack cheese was created by a Scotsman named David Jacks in the days of the California gold rush. At the beginning of WW1, an American purveyor called D.F. DiBernardi developed Dry Jack - an aged version of Monterey Jack - to replace the imported Italian cheeses (mostly Parmesan and Grana) that were no longer available because of the war. It had a flavor and texture similar to a medium aged Parmesan.
Ig's father, Tom Vella, formed his own company called the Sonoma Mission Creamery in 1931 and perfected his own version of Dry Jack. The recipe has hardly changed.
Quality cow's milk for Dry Jack is sourced from a nearby herd of cows that comprises of two thirds Holstein and one third Guernsey.
Charlie Malkassian is Head Cheesemaker at Vella, having learned the craft from Ig, who learned it from his father, Tom.
For production of Dry Jack, the milk is pasteurized and, after cutting and initial draining (similar to cheddar production), the curds are tied in muslin sacks, all of which are shaped and pressed by hand. The imprints of the cloth are clearly visible in the finished cheese.
After drying, cheeses are brined for three days, then transferrred to the maturing rooms where they receive their distinct coating from of a blend of cocoa, vegetable oil and black pepper. This is a traditional idea that originated in Italy and helps to protect the cheeses during their seven to ten months of aging.
Dry Jack is sold at several different ages. The youngest cheeses (seven to ten months) are referred to as Dry Jack. Wheels aged for a minimum of one year are called Special Select, and then there is Golden Bear, which refers to wheels aged for two to four years.
The texture of Dry Jack is firm, graduating to hard in the older wheels, when it also becomes increasingly brittle.
Flavors are distinctly sweet, mushroomy and often contain savory notes of grass or hay and earth.