Monterey Jack does not have to be the boring, nearly tasteless cheese most of us encounter only in Tex-Mex dishes. Dry Jack can be wonderful and indeed is considered by many to be one of America's greatest cheeses.
The best known maker of Dry Jack is Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma, CA. I had the pleasure of stopping by there a few weeks ago during my stay in Napa Valley.
Dry Jack is made from the pasteurized milk of grass-fed cows. Unlike regular Monterey Jack, Dry Jack undergoes an extensive aging process, during which time its moisture content is greatly reduced. The resulting cheese is hard, pale yellow in color, intensely flavored and similar in texture to Parmesan.
The Vellas coat the rind of their Dry Jack with a mixture of cocoa, pepper and soybean oil. The coating serves two purposes: (i) it keeps the cheese from cracking as it loses moisture and shrinks in size during the aging process and (ii) it imparts a unique spiciness to the cheese.
Mr. Vella told me the Dry Jack that I bought at his creamery was almost four years old. It boggles my mind to think I am eating a cheese that has been around longer than my daughter.
Vella Dry Jack is not currently available in Buffalo, but I have just requested that Premier Gourmet order some. They are good about honoring customer requests. So, I'll let you know when it comes in.
The one thing I can't figure out about Monterey Jack cheese is what conditions must be satisfied for a cheese to count as Monterey Jack. When I asked Mr. Vella about this, he simply told the common story of how a man named David Jacks allegedly invented the cheese in Monterey County during the California Gold Rush of the 1800s. However, in order for Mr. Jacks to be credited with "inventing" a new cheese, there must be something novel about his product. The mere fact that he made cheese from cow's milk in Monterey County hardly counts as a new invention. I have consulted reference books on American cheese and have scoured the internet but cannot find anything that distinguishes Monterey Jack as a distinct type of cheese from any other.
Here are some things that might distinguish a cheese as unique: (i) the type of starter culture (i.e., bacteria) added to milk to break down the lactose, (ii) the type of rennet (a coagulating enzyme) used to separate liquids (whey) from solids (curds), (iii) the process of cutting and pressing the curds, (iv) the method of treating the rind, and (v) the aging process. However, as best I can tell, Monterey Jack is not significantly different from cheddar in any of these categories, and Mr. Jacks certainly did not invent cheddar. The fact that he made some cheddar in California hardly seems to qualify his product as a new invention.
The mixture of cocoa, pepper and oil the Vellas use to coat their rinds seems to be a feature of their unique version of Monterey Jack rather than something that is common to all Jacks. So, if anyone knows what makes Monterey Jack Monterey Jack, please let me know.