Dry Jack Cheese Info

A True American Original

This is another true American Original, based on a drier version of Monterey Jack Cheese.

'Dry Jack Cheese' Utilizes a longer cook and stir time to dry it out, then is pressed in a cloth using no molds, and finally a very spicy surface rub for aging with cocoa, pepper, coffee, and oil.

This makes for a really spectacular presentation and one yummy cheese! It should be a fabulous project for everyone during the upcoming winter months.

A Cocoa and Pepper Rubbed Cheese

This month's recipe is not only about a very special cheese, but also about Ig Vella, a very unique man who had a huge influence on the rise of artisan cheese making in America.

Ig Vella was a master cheese maker and an advocate 'extraordinaire' for staying true to the craft of cheese making. He will be forever known for encouraging so many new cheese makers.

His finest legacy will be the 'Dry Jack' cheese that he refined and managed to keep alive, knowing that today his daughter and grandson are carrying this forward. Ig will be missed by all that knew him, as well as those that only knew of him.

This month's page will be a tribute to what you did while you were here Ig.

A Bit of History

From Monterey County Historical Society, written by Teresa Russell a descendent of the Espinosa and Boronda families mentioned below.

"Article about Dona Boronda's Jack Cheese. She is (was) my grandmother.

The name "jack" is from the use of a vice she made the cheese with. My dad, Ralph Russell (now 76 years old) lived on Rancho Los Gatos, with his mother (Charlotte Espinosa) at Russell and Espinosa Roads in Castroville. The Espinosas and Borondas came to California on pack trains in the 1700s. Dona Boronda brought her cheese recipe with her and started a dairy operation. The "jack" was a "vice."

My dad tells about how the milk was poured down into this jack device, and as it turned to cheese, it was squeezed between wooden paddles of the vice/jack that fit in the box. The handles were pulled together and bound by leather straps to hold the cheese. The whole gizmo was called a jack, because it pressed the cheese.

The Borondas sold this cheese to a man named [David] Jacks, who had a store. Jacks also exported the cheese on ships out of Monterey. Jacks identified his crates by stamping them "Jack Cheese."

But the original method of using a jack to make the cheese came from Espinosa Spain. (The Boronda and Espinosa families both came from Spain).


Teresa Russell [y Espinosa de Boronda]

As you can see from the above article, there are several alternative explanations for how Monterrey Jack got its name. However, David Jacks is most often credited as the cheese’s namesake.

In 1882, David Jacks began shipping a cheese branded with his last name and the city of origin, Monterey, Calif. People would ask for “Jack's Monterey” and over time the “s” was dropped and people began asking for Monterey Jack.

Then Along Came Dry Jack

Dry Jack originally came about through another happy accident in 1915, when a San Francisco cheese wholesaler (D.F. DeBernardi) stored and forgot about his over-supply of wheels of fresh Jack Cheese.

When shipments of hard cheese from Europe were interrupted as World War I progressed, he rediscovered the well aged Jack Cheese. The success of this cheese was assured when he and his customers found that the aged Jack had acquired a rich, nutty flavor. He found a perfect fit for this cheese with his Italian-American customers who quickly adopted the alternative. Other cheese makers began making the Dry Jack. Shipments soon reached across the country to the East Coast.

DeBernardi was the first to coat the cheese with oil, pepper, and lamp black, an ebony pigment made from oil lamp soot (no worse than the ash that we all seem to love on our goat cheeses).

Soon there were about sixty producers of Dry Jack, but with the advent of the declining economy and a number of cheap, imported grating cheeses (especially from South America), most producers dropped their production.

Ig Vella's Dry Jack in Sonoma

Basic Monterey Jack is a semisoft cheese with little aging. It has an ivory to pale yellow color and a flavor similar to American muenster.

Dry Jack comes about by aging fresh Monterey Jack cheese for seven months up to more than two years. This will develop a very dry and complex flavor and, with extended age, makes a great cheese for grating or breaking into chunks and eating much like an aged parma style cheese.

Ig Vella's father Tom had been making Monterey Jack since the early 1920s. Ig thinks that the reason Dry Jack producers fell in numbers after the war is that they began changing the process and producing inferior cheese, primarily by skimming cream and reducing aging times. These economic shortcuts cost less but the result was a grainy and dry cheese with substantial flavor loss as well. The customer base simply stopped buying the cheese. Ig says “It’s not a mass production-type cheese; you have to be patient with it,” and “If you push it out too quickly, it doesn’t have the flavor the consumers have gotten used to.”

He maintained the quality of ingredients and the rubbing of the aging cheese with his signature oil; powdered cocoa, and black pepper. Ig felt that his Dry Jack must be aged for at least seven months but he also aged his stock of premium Dry Jacks for a year or more.