- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

NEW YORK — Pause to consider that there are, indeed, classic cheeses besides Gruyere, Roquefort, Stilton and other European aristocrats, often named for their remote place of origin.

Count Monterey Jack among the classics, too — but one with a distinctive homegrown character: a genuine American cheese, flavored with national tradition, from an immigrant beginning. It’s an accessible, popular cheese, munched by the millions and named for a rugged individual.

So here’s the story behind the name.

They say it originated in the 19th century, in California, of course, with David Jacks (1822-1909), a colorful Monterey land baron and dairy owner.

He was a Scottish immigrant who arrived during the 1849 gold rush, began by selling dry goods to miners, then became a prosperous land dealer and dairyman. About 1882, Jacks began shipping from his dairies a local cheese stamped with his last name and its shipping point. He sold the cheese first in San Francisco and other Western markets. The “s” was gradually dropped from Jacks’ name, and people began asking for Monterey Jack.

That’s the basic legend. Historians add more detail to the cheese’s history, which goes way back. Jacks didn’t invent it. Some trace the cheese to Italy, to Roman times; through Spain to Mexico, then brought north up the West Coast by Spanish Franciscan fathers who founded the California missions.

They made a soft, mild cheese known generically as “queso del pais” (country cheese) or “queso blanco” (white cheese). In the 1800s, this evolved into the type of cheese Jacks marketed so successfully and that took his name (even when, away from the West Coast, it’s sometimes called California Jack).

According to the California Milk Advisory Board, the story is slightly complicated by accounts that a “jack” was a kind of press used to make cheese that was then referred to as jack cheese.

Nowadays you can take your pick among varieties that have been developed: jalapeno, onion and chili, just for starters, are among flavors available, besides plain. The California cheese board says there are about 20 types of spiced and flavored Monterey Jack, although all have texture and color similar to the original.

“We were the first to put hot peppers in this mild, semisoft cheese, in 1980 — now we do eight flavors,” David Viviani, third-generation cheese maker, owner of Sonoma Cheese Co., said in a phone interview from Sonoma, Calif. “It carries condiments and spices very well.”

He grew up with Jack as the standard cheese of his childhood, before he took over the family business. “My grandfather came to this town in 1912, started as a winemaker, then switched to cheese making in 1931,” he said.

Monterey Jack is not just an American cheese, but has a specifically Californian identity, he says, for good reasons. “It was relatively easy to make, it suited our early technology — we were infantile cheese makers back then, compared to Europe. California being the place to come and make your fortune at that time, Jacks did. He had the cattle, he had the mild climate, and he had nearby markets, including San Francisco.”

He also supports the California claim that “we have the happiest cows. It’s the same as with wine, where 80 percent is good grapes; with cheese 80 percent is good milk. If you don’t have good milk, you don’t get good cheese.”

The milk and the wonderful coastal climate aside, “If the cheese didn’t taste good we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he concluded, with a laugh.

“Monterey Jack is one of probably three or four of the top melting cheeses,” said Laura Werlin, a respected food writer and cheese specialist, speaking by phone from her home in Berkeley, Calif. “It really lends itself to grilling because of its wonderful melting qualities.”

Her next book focuses on grilled cheese, and she’s naturally enthusiastic about that method of preparation. What’s so great about ingredients for grilled cheese recipes, she said, is that they lend themselves to whatever combinations you want to make with them.

For the recipe that follows, she pointed out, “Monterey Jack is a good choice — with its flavor, it melts well, and blends with whatever you add. Here, it mirrors the avocados in creaminess — but it gets that extra California touch from the spicy salsa.”

Her ingredient list calls for “extra-sourdough bread.” She says that sourdough is well known as the hallmark of San Francisco and is made nationally. “But if you can find it, the extra-sour flavor gives the sandwich real zing, but it’s still not too sour or tart.”

When choosing a salsa for this grilled sandwich, try to find one that’s fairly thick. If your salsa is watery, drain off some of the liquid so that the bread stays crunchy.

Tips for cooking with cheese:

• Most cheeses, including Jack cheese, respond best to low and medium temperatures and a short cooking time. High heat and long cooking times tend to make cheese stringy and tough.

• Add the cheese when you can leave it cooking just long enough to melt and blend with other ingredients. For example, as a topping or in a sauce, add it as the last ingredient and heat just long enough for it to melt.

California grill

This recipe is from “Great Grilled Cheese,” by Laura Werlin, forthcoming from Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

8 sandwich slices extra-sourdough bread (or regular sourdough)

2 tablespoons butter, softened

8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, coarsely grated

½ cup purchased high-quality salsa (if using fresh salsa, drain the liquid)

1 large ripe avocado, about ½ pound, peeled and sliced into 12 ¼-inch-thick slices

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Butter one side of each of the bread slices. Place 4 slices of bread, buttered side down, on your work surface. Spread the salsa on the bread followed by the cheese. Top with avocado slices. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Place remaining bread, buttered side up, on top of the cheese.

Heat a large nonstick pan over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Put the sandwiches into the pan, cover, and cook for 2 minutes. Remove the cover and turn the sandwiches, pressing each one firmly with a spatula to flatten slightly. Cook for 1 minute or until the underside is golden brown. Turn the sandwiches once more, press with the spatula again, cook for 30 seconds, and remove from the pan. Cut in half and serve immediately. Makes 4 sandwiches.

These savory quesadillas combine Monterey Jack and flour or corn tortillas with sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic for a tasty snack.

Savory mushroom and Monterey Jack quesadillas

This recipe is from the California Milk Advisory Board.

1 tablespoon butter

7-ounce can sliced mushrooms, drained (or substitute 2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms)

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 green onions (white and light-green part only), chopped

½ teaspoon salt

4 ounces shredded or grated Monterey Jack cheese

Oil to brush tortillas

2 flour or corn tortillas

Sour cream (optional)

Salsa (optional)

In a small saute pan, melt butter and add mushrooms. Saute until mushrooms give off some liquid and soften. Add garlic and saute 1 more minute. Add chopped green onions and salt and remove from heat.

Place shredded cheese in a bowl; add the sauteed mushrooms and mix. Wipe saute pan clean and return to stove over medium heat. Lightly brush one side of each tortilla with oil, lay the oiled sides down in the pan.

Spread a half of the mushroom and cheese mixture onto each face of two tortillas. When the cheese begins to melt, place one tortilla on top of the other tortilla, with the filling-side down, like a sandwich.

Continue cooking and flipping until both sides are crisp.

Remove to plate or baking sheet and place in a warm oven until ready to serve. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or salsa, if using.

Makes 1 main serving or 4 appetizer-size servings.

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