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Comté cheese: a heritage to be proud of

Comté cheese: a heritage to be proud of

by Nancy Anne Harbord 11 November 2016

Nancy Anne-Harbord charts the history of Comté, one of France’s most famous cheeses, and explores how well it lends itself to cooking.

The lush, deep green of the Jura Massif region of eastern France, near the Swiss border, yields treasure. For over a thousand years, farming families have sought to preserve their milk for the months ahead by crafting it into Comté – a sweet, nutty cheese with remarkable depths of flavour. Alongside picturesque villages, wooded mountains and rolling hills, over 2,600 small dairy farmers graze their local Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle on unique grasslands so well suited to the production of rich, complex milk.

A story of rural collaboration, Comté journeys through the hands of three groups of artisans as it is produced – dairy farmers, fromagers (cheesemakers) and affineurs (those who age and refine the cheese). Comté is a co-operative cheese due to the labour involved in its production and multiple small-scale farmers supply the milk for each round – it can take 500 litres of milk per 40kg cheese, with wheels ranging from 40-70cm wide.

To preserve the local character of the cheeses, fromagers work only with milk taken from within an eight-mile radius of their fruitière – the cheese production facility that transforms the ‘fruit of the farm’. There are currently around 150 fruitières making cheese in the region, working with methods and equipment well rooted in historical tradition – part-skimming the milk, curdling in copper vats and pressing the fresh cheeses to prepare them for their affinage.

The final stage in the craft of this remarkable cheese is its maturation, taking place in dark, damp caves where young cheeses are rested, brushed, turned and loved by the region’s affineurs. There are only sixteen of these cellars in the region, storing the 1.5 million wheels of cheese that are produced every year. It is here that the unique flavours, colours and textures of the cheeses are coaxed out, aged at least four months and up to several years, with each affineur working with environment, experience and individual style to get the very best out of each wheel.

Comté is produced from the milk of Montbéliarde and French Simmental cattle
1.5 million wheels of the cheese are produced each year

Layers of flavour

Comté is a raw milk cheese – for me the most important sign of a high quality, carefully crafted artisan cheese. This means the milk is only heated gently, with natural bacteria – responsible for so much flavour and complexity – retained, developed and celebrated by the cheesemaker. These processes also preserve the hyper-local qualities of Comté – its terroir – one of its most appealing characteristics.

Each cow enjoys at least one hectare of natural pasture and in the warmer months grazes outside on grass, flowers and other unique flora. Only housed inside during the harsh winters, the cows are then fed on hay produced on the farm during the summer. This means the flavours of each round of Comté are quite distinct, reflecting the individual farms that surround the fruitière. These distinctions are important for the cheese lover, but the appreciation of these nuances also means conservation and biodiversity remain highly prized in the region.

The time of year the cheese is produced is also strongly reflected in the cheese. Summer milk yields golden cheeses with richer, earthier flavours, while winter milks mean more delicate, milky wheels. Where standardisation and tedious uniformity are the watchwords of factory production, Comté is one of those rare cheeses that places seasonality and regional distinction at the heart of its processes. Certainly something to shout from the rolling, green hills.

It is said that eighty-three separate flavour compounds can be detected in Comté and it is these remarkable complexities of taste that keep me exploring the world of cheese, greeting each hand-crafted example of the form with childish enthusiasm and unwavering appetite. Think brown butter, toasted nuts, fruity citrus and raw sugar. Sometimes a touch of chocolate or café au lait, earthy mushrooms or sweet, caramelised onions.

Young Comté tends towards fresh, lactic flavours of butter and yoghurt with sweet caramel notes and hints of fresh fruit, while longer-aged cheeses yield spicier, nuttier, more intense umami flavours. Although produced at temperatures that protect flavourful bacteria, this process is hot enough to begin caramelising the milk sugars, resulting in cheese with a mouth-watering balance of salty and sweet.

With a deep, complex flavour, Comté lends itself well to all sorts of dishes
The cheese is often turned into a fondue, as it has good melting properties

On the table

With its creamy texture and excellent melting properties, Comté is not only great by itself; it's also a fantastic cheese to cook with. Traditional winter warmers are an excellent place to start. Layered potato gratin is transcendent, perhaps with a few slices of pumpkin to enhance the cheese’s natural sweetness. Or a rich, silky fondue made with different ages of Comté, to take advantage of the variety of flavours and aromas present in the different cheeses.

Keeping true to French tradition, a soufflé, quiche, omelette or some delightfully puffed gougères are a truly lovely match for Comté. Earthy buckwheat galettes are also greatly improved with a sprinkle of this mountain cheese. Croque madame – with layers of toasted sourdough, salty cured ham, melty Comté and a fried egg – is very much what you should be eating for a weekend breakfast.

But moving gently away from tradition, there are many other possibilities for this cheese’s versatile flavours. Roasted duck is an excellent pairing – try it baked into a luxury Comté macaroni cheese. A moist, juicy beef burger on buttered brioche, topped with melted Comté and served with crisp French fries and zingy cornichon is going to win you friends. Even more so alongside a malty Belgian beer.

Christmas is a great time to explore a gorgeous piece of long-aged Comté. If you’re still looking for a vegetarian Christmas centrepiece, you can’t beat a pâté en croûte that brings together buttery puff pastry, earthy mushrooms, toasted nuts, sweet chestnut purée and deeply flavoured twenty-four-month Comté in glorious harmony.

Or if it’s afters you’re looking for, why not match a piece of fruity Comté with fresh apple and the raisin notes of a Jura Vin Jaune instead of throwing a few clashing supermarket cheeses on your next cheeseboard?

This cheese can be creamy, savoury, fruity, salty, umami, nutty, smoky and sweet – to name but a few of the possible flavours. The successful matches are almost endless.

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Comté cheese: a heritage to be proud of


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