It always surprises me when, at the mention of Vella Dry Jack, the person I'm talking to hasn’t heard of it. After 90 years of production, how can this cheese still be a secret to so many? Whatever the reasons, Vella Cheese Company, originator and maker of this cheese, is celebrating its 90th birthday this month -- a milestone that should cause all cheese aficionados to give a collective hurrah.
The creator of this cheese was Gaetano (Tom) Vella. Vella began his cheese operation in 1931 in Sonoma, California, where he made Monterey Jack among other cheeses. At the urging of the local Italians in Sonoma who wanted a hard grating cheese, he tweaked the recipe for Monterey Jack to create a cheese that could go the distance on the aging shelf. In so doing, he literally reinvented the wheel and gave birth to Vella Dry Jack, and American original.
Also original was Ignazio (“Ig”) Vella, Tom's son. Ig became a legendary figure in the American cheese community, not only as a tireless promoter of his own cheeses but also as a champion of American cheeses everywhere.
Anyone visiting Ig at the Vella Cheese factory might have been lucky enough to catch him him bending over the vats to scoop up curds into large pieces of muslin, squeeze those curds to extract some of the whey, roll them between his body and the side of the vat to for perfectly-shaped wheels, expertly twist the corners of the muslin to create a wheel-shaped "sack" of curds and, along with that, create the signature indentation on the top of the wheel, place them on a rack and continue with the remaining curds and muslin until the vat was empty.
After that, the cheese would be pressed and ultimately placed in its own slot in the wooden aging racks, though not before being brushed with a mixture of cocoa, black pepper and oil. This coating protects the cheese during its long stay on the aging shelf - a year or two. It looks pretty nifty too.
If you haven’t tasted Vella Dry Jack, I urge you to do so. With its notes of nuts and butter topped off with a pleasant tang, the longer aged Special Select is my favorite. No matter its age, though, Vella Dry Jack fits perfectly in almost any context -- as a snacking cheese, on an elegant cheese board, or, for its original intent -- grated on pasta, salad, or any dish that needs a sprinkle of a whole lot of goodness.
Vella Cheese Company is now in the hands of the next generation, which I can only hope will be around another 90 years – at least.
The American cheese community is a little less rich after recently losing two shining lights in the industry. Anne Saxelby, founder of Saxelby’s Cheese in New York and an American cheese champion, succumbed to heart complications at her home on October 9th. She was 40 years old.
Anne started Saxelby’s in 2006 in a tiny shop at the Essex Market in the Bowery neighborhood of Manhattan. I will never forget visiting her shortly after she put out her shingle. Her shop was small but mighty, her smile warm and broad, and her cheeses – many from the smallest farms in the Northeast – each told a story of place and of people. That was Anne – someone who was all about the cheesemakers, the land, and the craft of cheesemaking itself. Indeed, a few years after meeting Anne at her shop, I was visiting Andy and Mateo Kehler at their farm in Vermont, Jasper Hill Farm and Cellars, and there she was, ostensibly just hanging out at Jasper Hill, hands in the vat, literally feeling and crafting the work of the artisan cheesemaker. As it happens, she was also collaborating with Jasper Hill on a cheese called Calderwood, which Saxelby’s and many other cheese shops have sold ever since. Anne walked her talk, which is why her family and friends have created the Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund. This will provide funding for financially challenged teens and young adults to work as apprentices in sustainable systems and agriculture and bring what they learned back to their communities. Anne leaves behind three children and her husband, Patrick Martins, founder of Heritage Foods.
Pat Polowski was also much beloved in the cheese community. His unique ability to bridge the most technical details about the whys and hows of cheese with language we non-scientists could understand endeared him to us all. He died August 29th at just 29 years old.
Among many things, Pat was a food science guy who focused on cheese. He created the cheesescience.org website to bring cheese science under one “roof,” a kind of one-stop shopping for all who were (and are) interested in what makes cheese, well, cheese. While the site may be a technical guide, it is also a fun guide too – a reflection of Pat’s ability to weave his unique brand of humor into science to make it fun and understandable.
A component of the site, which is still up and running, is the Cheese Science Toolkit - a feature Pat explained this way: “The Cheese Science Toolkit is intended to be a science guidebook for those who have a special place in their heart for cheese.” We all have a special place in our hearts for Pat whose brief time on earth and even shorter time in the cheese community has left a legacy that will surely keep his memory alive for a long time to come.