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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Golden State Cheese

There is no doubt that Americans have a passion for cheese: in snacks, sandwiches and main dishes. Why, Crayola even named one of its colors “Macaroni and Cheese”! Today, California is the nation’s second-largest cheese producer (after Wisconsin) with more than 50 cheesemakers who produce over 250 different varieties and styles of cheese.

California’s cheesemaking origins hark back to 1769 when Spanish padres arrived, set about building mission-churches, and made a cheese they called Queso del Pais, or “country cheese” from the dairy cows they brought with them. Eighty-odd years later, the gold discovery brought thousands of would-be gold prospectors flooding into the territory, soon followed by a rush of settlers—many with a dairy cows tied behind covered wagons to provide milk and butter for their families on the trail.

Among the new settlers was a woman named Clara Steele. She arrived in San Francisco by ship in May 1856 with her two children, to join her husband who had come the year before, hoping to make his fortune in the gold fields. The family settled in Sonoma County, returning to the farming life they knew from Ohio. Cottage cheese was available from local ranchers, but hard cheeses had to be shipped from America’s east coast commercial cheese factories—and Clara Steele had developed a craving for the cheddar she had enjoyed back home. But the Steeles were wheat and potato farmers. Legend says Clara hired a local Miwok Indian to rope some wild longhorn cattle, and keep them tied so she could milk them. Next, she began experimenting with her grandmother’s recipe for making cheddar cheese. In 1857, the Steele family launched a commercial dairy operation, shipping butter and domestic hard cheeses to San Francisco. In 1864, they produced the biggest wheel of cheese ever seen in California—a 21,800-pound cheddar, 20 feet in circumference and 18 inches thick.

Enter David Jacks, a Monterey merchant and dairy owner who is credited with refining the padres’ Queso del Pais recipe to create a new native cheese—shipping it to San Francisco and other western markets in 1882 branded with his last name and city of origin. Eventually the “s” was dropped and customers began asking for “Monterey Jack”—considered one of the most significant and popular cheeses ever created in the U.S.

In a bow to its heritage, California is also the largest producer of Hispanic-style cheeses in the nation.

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