Day 87-Monterey Jack


87 cheeses into my 100 day journey and I have yet to review a single American cheese.  Actually, there’s not a lot of American cheese to be had here in Canada, strangely. I’m not sure if this is due to some dairy embargo laws or what. It’s not that we lack great cheese in Canada- both Canadian and foreign-it’s just that American cheese doesn’t even seem to be on the menu. Curious.

Even today’s cheese, the famous American creation, Monterey Jack, is actually a Canadian iteration-this time made by Canadian cheese giant Armstrong, AKA Saputo.  I had such a great experience with Woolwich goat cheese that I have decided to open my mind to tasting some of the cheese made by our Canadian cheese barons.  I didn’t really have a choice with Monterey Jack, it’s impossible to find here in Canada in anything but an Industrially made version.

Monterey Jack, AKA Monterey Sonoma Jack, AKA Jack was officially named in 1955 by the American food and drug administration to cover a variety of cheeses then on the market.  A raging cheese debate still exists as to who created Jack.  In the mid 1800’s Dona Juana Cota de Bonrondo made a cheese called Queso del Pais and sold it door to door in Monterey.  At the same time, a similar cheese was being made and sold by a Domingo Pedrazzi which was formed by a tool called a house jack which pressurized the cheese.  His cheese was sold as Pedrazzi’s Jack Cheese.  However, a third party, David Jacks basically took the recipe of Queso del Pais and started marketing a cheese called Jack’s cheese. This is the one that took off.   It’s all rather muddled.  To make it even more complicated the actual Queso del Pais origin cheese recipe was brought to Mexico from Spain by Franciscan monks.  Whew- I don’t know Jack!

Monterey Jack-regardless of its origin- remains hugely popular to this day, and  accounts for about 10% of cheese production in California.  There are many varieties of Jack from Young Jack, a mild cheese often flavoured with spices, to  a runny farmstead Jack and Mezzo Secco, a firmer parmesan-like Jack.  The process for creating all of these Jacks is the same-it’s the aging that makes the difference.  Jack is often mixed with other cheeses, it’s the “Mex” in my “Tex-Mex” a combination of shredded cheddar and Jack.

Jack cheese is usually aged for about 7 months before sale. Monterey Jack is a semi-hard cheese made from pasteurized cow’s milk. It’s usually industrially made.  It can be made from whole, partly skimmed or skimmed cow’s milk. Because of its low content of tyramine-an organic compound thought to be associated with headaches, it is frequently recommended as one of the few cheeses that is safe to eat for migraine sufferers.

So that’s Jack, now onto Armstrong for a second.  I have  grown up eating Armstrong cheese all my life.  It’s just been one of those cheeses that you can find anywhere in BC.  Armstrong cheese was originally made in the small BC town of Armstrong.  However, this is sadly no longer the case.   Dairyworld purchased Armstrong Cheese in 1997, and Saputo purchased Dairyworld, including Armstrong in 2003.  In February 2004, after being in operation for more than 100 years, Saputo closed the Armstrong Cheese site down. What a drag, I had no idea! My little package of Armstrong Monterey Jack looks to have been made somewhere in Quebec. Of course.

Thus, we have a very lost little cheese on our hands.  Is it Spanish?  Is it Mexican?  It’s surely American, but wait, it’s from Armstrong, nope, it’s actually from Quebec.  Do you see how confusing this cheese blogging can get?  My innocent little white slice of Jack looks exactly as it is-a boring industrial cheese, safe and not threatening in any way.  It’s pallid, there is no rind, no eyes and virtually no smell.  This is sanitized cheese.  It doesn’t get any safer than this.  At least my kids will finally be happy with the left overs!

Here goes…

Well, after 86 days of eating gnarly cheese, I am suddenly reminded of what I used to think all cheese was.  This is it- mild, chewy, a tiny bit sharp, a tinsy bit salty, a sliver of sweet, all very constrained in an even, springy interior paste. There is no hint of barn, ammonia or mould.  It’s like astronaut cheese from the future, is there even bacteria in this?  It’s just a hum drum chew.  What’s the point?  With so many amazing artisanal delicious cheeses out there, it’s a pity that something like Jack has total market domination.  It’s more of a comment on our society than on the cheese though-Jack is the safe, inoffensive choice, but it’s not my slice of cheese.