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It isn’t everyday I am offered a trip to France, and it isn’t every day that once there, I am eating my weight in just one cheese each day. But I went to the Jura Mountains to learn about the spectacular Comté cheese, and I came home with the makings of a good novel – and yes, some really good cheese.
Comté has been made for over a century, the practical result of farmers in the Swiss border mountain range needing to preserve their milk for the winter. Fast-forward to today, and you learn that a wheel of Comté represents much more than just a cheese. It is the result of the efforts of the people living in a 200-kilometer long region (120 mile) to preserve their way of life, their land, and ultimately their future. Part and parcel of this is the production of a cheese like no other. In fact, amazingly, it’s the subject of a scientific study on the role of microflora in its flavors. It is also symbolic of land sustainability, and it is fundamentally the raison d’etre for dairy farmers, cheesemakers, cheese agers, cheese sellers, and others in the region and beyond.
The cheese itself is an 80-pound wheel made throughout the year from the milk of the Montbeliard cows, whose diet consists exclusively of the pasture from the farmer’s land, whether fresh during the spring through fall or dried in the winter. These cows have room to roam. Comté rules state that every cow must have at least an acre and a half each to themselves. No crowded fields here.
To make the cheese, the milk is brought to a fruitière or cheesemaking facility, which, by (Comté) law, must be within a sixteen-mile radius of the farm. The milk is allowed to rest no longer than 24 hours before being made into cheese, at which time it is poured into copper cauldrons to begin the process.
Each fruitière brings its own imprint to the cheese by way of unique starter cultures and of course, the fact the cows in one part of the Jura are eating a different salad mix than those in another part. In many cases, the fruitière has made its own starter cultures, which is a fancy way of saying they’ve harnessed their local terroir and added it to the raw milk to begin the essential acidification process. The rennet (coagulant) is then added to the ripened milk to transform it from liquid into one big vat of yogurt-like curds.
The solid mass is then cut into small curds to expel the whey (liquid) and heated for the same purpose. Once the curds have reached the desired acidity, they are sucked into a hose that transports them across the cheesemaking room to a curd separator. Like magic, the whey goes into waiting tanks and the curds tumble into metal molds where they will be packed and pressed overnight.
The next day, the cheeses are removed from the molds, lightly salted, and left to rest on the spruce aging shelves at the fruitiere for ten days to one month.
After that, the affineur (cheese ager) comes to pick them up and perform the essential task of nurturing the wheel through its long aging process.
Marc Janin of Fromagerie Janin in Champagnole
Comté is aged a minimum of six months and up to two years, give or take. Marc Janin, a cheese shop owner we visited at his store, Fromagerie Janin was holding onto a stash for the holidays that is four years old. He says it’s extraordinary at that age. Guess what my Christmas wish is?
Yet another incredible part of the Comté story involves the facilities in which much of the cheese is aged. As border mountains, the Jura were prime spots for military barricades. One such barricade, ultimately never used by soldiers, was eventually turned into a cheese aging facility by visionary Marcel Petite. Though no longer living, Petite’s vision was to take the local cheese and make it better. Consider it done. Today, this barricade-cum-cheese cave holds an impressive 80,000 wheels of cheese.
Inspecting a young Comté wheel at the fruitiere
Amazingly, the three tasters on staff at Petite tend to every one of those 80,000 wheels throughout the life of those cheeses, tasting, testing, and ensuring their exact market readiness. When we were there, we witnessed a maze of robots, ATVs, and other necessarily small but functional vehicles transporting, turning, and stacking cheeses. It’s a mind-bogglingly busy and impressive underground network.
With the cave temperature hovering between 48 and 52 degrees, our hour (or longer) tour was bone-chilling. But the cheeses we tasted afterward made it all worthwhile (and showed why those temperatures were essential to the cheese’s flavor and textural development).
Part of the 80,000 Comté wheels at Comté Marcel Petite
Comté is a remarkable cheese in so many ways, and its diversity of flavor is the ultimate manifestation of this. The cows’ diet integrally affects flavor as does the fruitiére’s unique cultures and cheesemaking methods. But maybe the biggest contributor to flavor is the one about which the least is known: the microflora. These go unseen but are part of the farms, the cows, the air, the pastures – anywhere microflora live, which is everywhere. This explains why the government is funding a study on their role in the flavors of Comté cheese.
Add to that the individual attention each cheese gets while aging – an occasional salt and water rubdown, graduated temperature changes, and regular turning of the wheels – and so it is that the cheese takes on different characteristics from wheel to wheel, batch to batch, fruitiére to fruitiére, cave to cave.
The Comté flavor wheel depicts over eighty flavors, any number of which can be found in just one bite of cheese. This doesn’t include the flavors that we, as humans, inevitably identify because of our unique palates. (The flavor wheel is actually in the midst of being reworked, so it will be exciting to see what emerges).
The range of flavors can be from fruity to animal-y, caramel-y to mushroomy, oniony to vanilla-y, buttery to brothy, and so much more. On this trip, I think I must have tasted almost every flavor on the wheel. The power of suggestion? I doubt it. The cheese is that diverse and that complex. And yes, I ate a lot of it. A whole lot.
A summer Comté can be easily identified by its sungold color, a direct result of the cow’s pasture diet. A winter cheese will be paler but no less extraordinary as we discovered in a tasting of winter and summer cheeses together. I found the winter cheeses to veer more toward lactic flavors (think fresh milk) and aromas, while many of the summer milk cheeses had more pronounced roasted nut, chocolate, bread-like, and brown butter flavors. Both interesting, both complex, both extrordinarily delicious.
Tasting cheese at its source is invariably more meaningful than from a shop. But most of us never get the chance to do that. I am lucky to have had that opportunity. Much of what I returned home with, though, is an appreciation for a cheese that represents much more than the sum of its parts. It is the result of a community of hardworking people, beautiful cows, and ultimately the desire to ensure that an extraordinary cheese will end up on our table now and forever.