Celebrating France’s Wonderful comté cheese
When you travel in the Franche-Comté region in eastern France, you’ll see dozens of green and white road signs for the “Route de Comté,” pointing you toward the village cheese makers where you can buy well-made local cheese. They pop up on the road every couple of miles – there’s a Comté maker in most every village in the region, and the Comtois people take great pride in their cheese.
Though it’s got about as much name recognition around here as Dry Jack does in Outer Mongolia, Comté is a great, grand cheese. Above and beyond all the other stuff I’m about to tell you below, there are a trio of really big reasons why you should know about this cheese and why it’s so deserving of a chapter in this book.
- There’s more traditional Comté being made than any other French cheese. That’s right. More on this in a minute. But to get the point out front, while Brie, Camembert, Roquefort and various versions of traditional French goat cheeses usually get the big press, there is actually more Comté made using traditional methods than there is of any other cheese in France.
- Comte is the cheese by which French cheese mongers judge another cheese shop. Why? Because there’s so much fairly traditional Comté still being made there’s a lot more room to move in the way one buys it. So when a French cheese pro wants to judge the true quality of a shop, she starts by buying some Comté.
- All else aside, at it’s best it’s simply a great tasting cheese, one that anyone who likes good food should get the chance to savor at its best a few times before they die. Eating some Comté right now. It’s buttery, smooth, soft but masculine at the same time. This is not timid cheese. It’s just not one that has to hit you over the head. At the more forceful end of its spectrum—which is where I like it, it’s got a great balance of bigness and bashfulness. It’s been ten minutes since I ate it and the flavors are staying right with me, as much in balance now as they were when I first started eating it. Buttery, nutty, nice nose, croissant?
Not Just the French Version of Gruyere
Comté (which the French pronounce “Con-tay”) has been made in the Jura mountains for centuries, long before there was a country called France; without question, it is the cheese of the Franche-Comté, the district of France which butts up against the Swiss border.
In France, the cheese’s formal name is “Gruyere de Comté.” Over there, they use the term Gruyere as a generic for any mountain cheese. But in North America the use of the word Gruyere has resulted in its often being dismissed as “a French copy of the Swiss.” This is wholly inaccurate. While they have similarities, Comté has a flavor all its own—smoother on the tongue, less salty, rounder in flavor, with less of a “nose” and not as much of the fruitiness that is so characteristic of its Swiss cousin.
Comté has more than enough history and heritage to stand on its own. In fact, it was the first of France’s cheeses to be recognized and rewarded with an “AOC”—an “appellation d’origine controllee”—to guarantee its makers and eaters’ authenticity. No small achievement in a country that takes its food and itself as seriously as France.
Made into large, flat 75-pound wheels, Comté has a rough dimpled brownish rind, and a smooth, firm white to yellow interior. The best Comté has a wonderful nutty, buttery flavor. Unlike our usual image of large holed Swiss-type cheeses, Comté has only an occasional pea sized “eye” (what we call holes). In fact many of the best tasting Comtés have almost no holes at all, but rather long fissures or cracks (known as “lenure”) that run through the paste of the cheese. In its home region, Comté seems to find its way onto the table in just about every way you can think of; on sandwiches, in fondue, melted into omelets, in sauces, on salads, after dinner. Or, of course, eaten just as it is.
Who Cares About Comté?
My first hint that there was more to Comté cheese than I might have thought, came in over two decades ago, when I visited the Franche-Comté for the first time back in 1984. I have vivid memories of walking the market in the mountain town of Besancon, blue skies overhead, the rustling of the river Doubs in the background. Almost everywhere I looked, long lean two-foot high triangular wedges of well-aged Comté cheese stood, reaching skyward, like pointed, symmetrical mountains. Tasting Comté from those cheese counters made me realize that (as usual) what was being shipped over to us in America was the youngest, blandest version available of what was really a cheese of great character – no wonder no one in the U.S. was taking notice. But the Comté I bit into in Besancon was beautiful, buttery, well-aged and richly flavored.
That first visit piqued my interest. But it was my second visit to the Franche-Comté, a decade later, that made me a devoted follower of this fantastic French cheese. And my third, just a few years ago, reaffirmed everything I learned and believed after the first two trips. This is a great cheese.
7 Generations of Cheese
The highlight of that second trip was a day with Jean-Charles Arnaud, affineur (cheese ager) and a man on a mission. He is one of half a dozen affineurs who mature top-notch Comté cheese. On my recent visit I spent the day with the folks at the Fort St. Antoine, the maturing company of Marcel Petit. Most everything I learned from Jean-Charles years earlier, the men and women at Petit echoed on this most recent trip. They have a bit of a different approach to maturing the cheese (more on that in a minute) but the passion for tradition is equally solid.
Jean-Charles is so connected to the Franche-Comté you could film a French version of Roots with him as the lead. He’s the seventh generation of his family to work with cheese. One of his grandfathers was a cheesemaker, the other a winemaker. At the time I visited in the mid-90s, Jean-Charles was in his early thirties, but despite his youth he was already running the family firm, guiding the buying, aging, and selling of nearly 20 percent of the entire production of Comté cheese.
Tall, thin, and energetic, he is a font of knowledge about the cheese he cares for so much. He comes on pretty casually, gentle, happy, a man who likes his life and likes what he’s doing. For a while he had me fooled—worried I guess if I’m honest about it—into thinking that I was in for a rather superficial day of the usual legends and lore of Comté. But beneath the soft surface, Jean-Charles is a man of deep devotion, with a core of emotional connection to the land and the cheese on which he was raised. Just as I was starting to wonder if I was in for a day of Comté cliches, he caught me with a sudden seriousness, a sense of gravity that literally made my eyes tear up (remember to imagine the French accent):
“Really my goal in my lifetime is to help preserve the integrity and quality of Comté cheese. Sometimes we add some equipment here and there, to help make it a little easier for the people, to make sure they stay in business. But the important things—the freshness of the milk, the raw milk, the Montbelliard cows, copper kettles, no silage, real rennet—these things we must preserve.”
The man meant what he was saying. To preserve the tradition for another generation, to pass the torch of craft and Comté to the eight generation of Arnaud’s is akin to an American fighting to save a piece of Redwood forest. Traditions take centuries to build up, but they can unravel at an alarming speed. Jean-Charles has undertaken a trust of great magnitude.
Unlike so many heirs to family businesses who have little enthusiasm for their work, Jean-Charles is a man with great passion and love for everything about Comté cheese; the mountains, the people who make it, the land it comes from. He seems to know all his producers intimately. When we ran into one of the local farmers delivering milk, he knew him, too. Wherever we went, he knew the cheesemakers, greeted them with enthusiasm. He knew their children. He knew their cheese.
Arriving in Comté Country
In school we used to sing “purple mountains majesty” and I used to wonder what it meant. In the Franche-Comté the mountains in May were majestic in yellow. When we arrived, they were covered with millions of yellow, yellow dandelions, looking like the poppy fields Dorothy landed in on her way from Kansas to Oz. The locals say that the Comté cheese from the first eight days of May is very, vibrantly yellow, the inevitable and very natural result of cows munching mouthfuls of the yellow flowers.
Being a city boy, I love to hear about life in the mountains. Jean-Charles obliged me:
“I remember when I was about ten years old and I was visiting with my grandfather in his village and there was so much snow that we were completely cut off from communications for eight days. No telephone. Nothing. But every day the farmers brought the milk—with sleds, with dogs, with horses—and everyday my grandfather made cheese.”
The mountains mystify me. As a kid I was terrified of getting lost, separated from my mother when we went to big public places like the beach, or downtown department stores. But it’s almost impossible for me to imagine being completely cut off, left behind by the rest of the world in a village with 22 homes for eight snow-drifted days, no outside world, no newspapers, no mail, no TV, no nothing. Just the family, the Comté cheese, bread, dried country ham, wine, and some potatoes to get by on.
Tied to the Region
During the cold winter months in the mountains, cheese was one of—or often the only—serious source of protein available. Cheesemaking is woven into the fabric of life in ways which are not easily abandoned. Jean-Charles explained, “The Comté cheese was made in this area because we have everything you need to make it in the Jura mountains. The cows, the milk, the wood to make the fire, the salt.”
We take salt for granted nowadays, but in days of yore, salt was hard to come by. You’d never know it from the cheap cardboard drum of Morton’s, but salt was once something people fought wars over. The Franche-Comté was once one of the most important sources of non-sea salt to be found in Europe. For more on this, see Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book, “Salt.” To this day, large storage buildings, including one of the Arnaud cellars, can still be found that only a few hundred years ago were used exclusively to house salt.
Without trying to sound like a commercial, I can tell you that the best Comté cheese today is still made much as it was when Jean-Charles’ grandfather was making cheese. Milk is still delivered twice a day, real rennet is prepared only from local calves, and the curd is cooked in copper kettles. The copper contributes to the flavor of the finished cheese. In the smaller dairies the cheesemakers still pull the finished curd from the kettles the old fashioned way. They tie two corners of a large cheesecloth like a giant lobster bib around their necks. Then, bracing their feet against the wall, they lean over the kettle like one of the Flying Wallendas preparing to leap. Reaching deep into the hot cauldron, they drag the other two corners down across the bottom of the kettle to pull out the curd. Remember these are 75-pound wheels of cheese.
As we were driving into the village of Arbois for what was to be an incredible lunch at the Taverne La Finette, Jean-Charles mentioned that, “this is the home of Pasteur.” He waited a minute or two, chuckled a little Comtois chuckle, and added, “But we don’t pasteurize the milk here.” There are no coincidences. Instead of pasteurizing, the Comtois have gone to great lengths to make pasteurization irrelevant, by setting up standards for milk production that make a mockery of what we tolerate in our bacteria phobic, hi-tech society. There’s an arm long list of rules and regulations set up to insure that the milk that goes into Comté is exceptional.
It starts, of course, with the cows. By law, they must be the traditional local breed of Montbelliards. A beautiful russet and white, they have been the main milk producers in the Franche-Comté for centuries. In the Comté cows are treated with the care and concern that we normally associate with the Hindu. Cars stop as the bovines parade across country roads, strutting like the local gentry that they are, cowbells ringing off leather collars. Strict codes dictate what the cows are allowed to eat (no silage), and where they can eat it.
Every facet of the milk handling is monitored. No pumping of the milk is allowed, in order to protect the delicate fat globules so crucial to good cheesemaking. The milk must be fresh (from the morning the cheese is made and the previous evening) and unpasteurized. Bacteria counts must be very, very low.
It’s interesting that in the U.S. cheese made from unpasteurized milk has been wrongly accused of being a health hazard. Jean-Charles thew up his hands in frustration at the mere mention of it. “In America the laws require a bacteria count of less than 1,000,000. One million! This is ridiculous. But because they pasteurize the milk no one knows or cares that it is of such poor quality. To make Comté cheese we must have milk with a bacteria count no higher than 2,000!”
If you journeyed back into the cheesemaking world of 200 years ago, you’d find that most every farm in Europe and North America would have been independently making its own cheese. Comté is—and always has been—an exception. Since the middle of the 13th century Comté has been made, not on farms, but in fruitieres; small village dairies which are found throughout the region. What brought about such a unique system? The cold mountain climate and difficult terrain led the Franco-Comtois people to make large well, aged cheeses which could be stored for eating in the long winter months. The emphasis is on “large.” A wheel of Comté cheese takes about 600 liters of milk, much more than the average small-holder’s herds could come up with in a day’s “work.” The result was a natural movement towards cooperative cheesemaking.
The fruitiere system has a simple elegance to it. Each village would have a fruitiere, and each fruitiere has a cheesemaker. Each morning and each afternoon farmers from the surrounding countryside would bring fresh milk to the fruitiere. Each morning the cheesemaker mixes morning and evening milk, adds the rennet and starts the process of making Comté cheese. The fruitiere keeps the new cheeses for only a few days. The cheeses are then taken to an affineur (an “ager,” like Jean-Charles) who cares for the cheeses from then until the time they are sold – anywhere from three months on up. Affinage is a profession that has only recently been revived in the U.S., but in France it is an accepted and essential part of the cheese world.
The fruitiere today remains a critical part of maintaining the viability of village life in the Franche-Comté. To this day it dominates the agricultural life of the region. Letitia, who works at Marcel Petit, told me that she grew up nearby on a dairy farm. I asked if her parents had sold the milk to a fruitiere for Comte making. “Here if you produce milk, you sell it for Comté,” she answered matter of factly. “That’s just what you do.” In total there are about 3200 farms contributing the milk of their Montbelliard herds (the only type of cows one can use to make Comté) to the system. The average herd is still very small, many having only 15 or so cows. The Comté codes require at least one hectare of land per animal in order to allow sustainable grazing without overburdening the pastures. Since a single wheel of the cheese takes about 530 liters—the yield of about 30 cows—the system is set up to support the small farms while still making traditional large wheels of cheese a daily reality.
Jean-Charles is dedicated to preserving as many of the fruitieres and the farms as possible, a commitment that comes from a common care for the quality of his cheese and for the quality of traditional life in the Franc-Comtois countryside. As we drove he spoke with passion: “In the village now there is only the fruitiere. There is no more school, no more church, only the cheese making. If we lose the fruitiere, we will lose the village.”
An Ancient Tradition with a Modern Business Bent
As old as it is, there is a compelling, cooperative genius in the fruitiere system, one which we in our “progressive” wisdom are working hard to reinvent in the modern American business world. The Comtois system is set up so that all three of its components (“stakeholders” we might call them in business school these days) have their success interlinked. The affineur depends on the cheesemaker to deliver a well-made young cheese. The cheesemaker relies on the farmer to bring in the best quality milk. While each is free to pursue his (and it is a predominantly male world from what I saw) particular passion and style, none of the three can be successful without comparable efforts from the other two links in the chain.
To seal the shared “stake” in the deal, the final price that the milk producer and cheesemaker are paid is linked to the price the affineur gets for the cheese when it is sold. The better the quality of the cheese, the better the price, the more everyone makes. Voila. What goes around comes around. A medieval system where stakeholders are working cooperatively to create quality, where the reward system reinforces the drive for quality, where all hold a shared vision of what success and quality is. Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?
A Living Tradition
Part of what made such an impression on me is how much the Comté producers have done to make their tradition a living, and thriving modern enterprise. There are nearly 200 fruitieres left in the Franche-Comté. This is truly a phenomenal number of small dairies still operating. By comparison, there are only about 500 dairies left in the whole rest of France! To give you a frame of reference, in Somerset, home of English cheddar there are fewer than a half dozen dairies left making traditional raw milk cheese! What accounts for this? Since the Swiss have accomplished a similar feat, it seems to me it must be something about the mountain cultures (Rootedness? Separateness? Distance created by mountain barriers?) that has kept more of the cheesemaking traditions intact than in any other area. Whatever it is we ought to learn from it. They have done so much to preserve the integrity of their tradition, yet they’ve done so in a way that’s not stubbornly opposed to modernity, or to making an effort to learn, to grow and to improve.
There are two ways you can learn to become a cheesemaker in a Comté fruitiere, and both require a good bit of time in the school. The “short route” is that you can go to work for your father who, in this case would have to be a cheesemaker, for two years of apprenticing. Then you go to the dairy school in Poligny, the capital of Comté country, for two years (along with upwardly mobile cheesemakers from all over the world), then out to do an apprenticeship in another fruitiere for a year. Finally you go back to Poligny for final year of formal schooling. In total it’s six years training! And if your father isn’t a Comté cheesemaker? Then you need to go to the school for an even longer run of study and apprenticeship.
Proper Aging in the Caves
Comté aging caves (or “cellars”) are quite a sight. Thousands upon thousands of wheels of Comté carefully laid flat, like thin milky millstones, on unfinished wooden shelves. The shelves, which by law must be made from local pine, reach up a good twenty five feet high, and stretch fifty yards or so across the rooms. There are a dozen different enormous aging rooms, each with its own unique combination of temperature and humidity. The affineur moves the cheeses through the rooms at various stages of aging, to bring out the best in each wheel of cheese.
To reach the apex, the mountain peak of majestic flavor, that makes it worth paying the higher prices charged the cheese, Comté has to be aged for, to my taste, at least ten or twelve months. Only then is it really ready to be savored. Best of all really are wheels that have been in the caves for over eighteen months.
To properly age a wheel of good Comté cheese takes more than just patience. After the young wheels arrive at the Arnaud cellars, each wheel is turned 3 times a week for 3 weeks, then twice a week for the rest of its stay on the aging shelves. By my rough calculations, that would mean that before it gets to us at 12 months age, each wheel is rubbed, washed and turned about 107 times! On top of that each and every wheel is tapped with a hammer, plugged and tasted two or three times during the aging to check it for quality, and class it accordingly. Compare that to the average American factory cheese whose only turning comes as cardboard cases of it are loaded and unloaded from sixty foot semi-trailers, cheeses that are tasted for the first and last time by the unsuspecting consumer that bought them.
A Trained Comté Palate
Although the cheese of many dairies is aged in the same cave, each retains its original character. “Every fruitiere makes cheese with its own flavor,” Jean-Charles told me. “And each wheel is slightly different. If you give me Comté cheese to taste (at random) from the caves, 95 percent of the time I can tell you from which fruitiere it comes, and when it was made. But,” he hastened to add before I might conclude he was bragging, “so can this man over here (the taster working his way down the rows). I must. It’s my job.” That may not seem all that impressive until I tell you that the Arnaud caves are filled with about 70,000 wheels of Comté cheese made by 60 different fruitieres.
In search of the “perfect” Comté, I tasted, and tasted, and tasted some more. Well over 25 different cheeses by the time we were done. I treasure the opportunity to taste like this, because it’s the only way to truly appreciate how significant the differences are between one wheel of Comté and another. Finally we settled on the cheeses from a particular dairy one of Jean-Charles favorites. Since the cheese varies from day to day, and year to year with the vagaries of weather, dairy farming, and cheesemaker job continuity, it really doesn’t much matter which dairy it was. What does matter is that it was one of the fruitieres which makes cheese only in the summer months, when the cows are high in the mountain pastures eating the wild flowers, herbs, and greens. This is the kind of cheese that makes good Comté a favorite of connoisseurs.
Marcel Petite: Long Aging, Cooler Temperatures
I first learned about the Comté of Marcel Petit from Jason Hinds, who’s long been a key component of the crew at Neals’ Yard Dairy in London, where traditional cheese is as much of a religion as anything else. I can’t remember how Jason first hooked up with them, but generous spirit that he is, he’s been selling their cheese, and telling everyone else he knows in the cheese world, about it for a number of years now.
Visiting the Fort St. Antoine to see the folks who make Marcel Petite’s cheese a reality today, it’s easy to see the same passions, and the same expert palates that impressed me a decade earlier in meeting Jean-Charles Arnaud. While I’m sure there’s a level of competitive spirit in the region amongst the various affineurs, the great thing for the rest of us is that the competition seems to be taking place on a very, very high level of quality.
Petit started his business up in 1966 and from everything I saw on my visit, he did a great job of founding an exceptional company that stands behind his values and commitment to quality. His biggest conceptual contribution to the world of Comté though was to create what he called “affinage longue.” What M. Petite did was to lower the temperature at which Comté was being aged from the then typical 15°C to a much cooler 7-8°C. The reduced temperature allowed the cheeses more time to develop at a gentler pace, maximizing flavor while holding on to moisture and butter fat that might otherwise be more quickly lost. He also had the foresight to buy the Fort St. Antoine, a huge stone structure buit in the 1870s that had been abandoned since WWII. Of course the thick stone walls and high vaulted ceilings of the Fort made it ideal for maturing large wheels of cheese and today it’s filled with roughly 65,000 75-pound rounds, stacked neatly on spruce shelves all the way up to the 30-foot high ceilings. The company buys from about 35 different fruitieres, of which 13 are considered good enough to have their cheeses aged in the Fort.
Of course, stone walls alone aren’t enough to mature the cheese properly. Affinage remains very much a craft, and the quality of the affinage is very much dependent on the skill of the man or woman doing the work. In this case, that would be Claude Querry. Quite a guy. Small and thin but with an enormous energy coming out of him. About 5’ 7”, maybe in his mid thirties, with a thin Van Dyke beard, long sideburns and bold, almond-shaped brown eyes. I’d been warned before meeting him that his style is often to grill visitors to see if they’re really serious about Comté before he’ll share his secrets with them. For whatever reason—I was with Jason, our time was tight—I was spared any interrogation. We got right into cheese. Although there are 65,000 wheels of cheese under Claude’s command, amazingly he seems to know most everyone. His work is first to maximize the flavor of each cheese, and then, of equal import to match the tastes of Petite’s customers with the cheeses.
To that end, we tasted twenty different cheeses within an hour. Walking down row after row of cheese, he would stop for reasons known only to him to taste and take notes. Our purpose was two fold really—Jason was choosing cheese for his Burrough Market stall in London, and, at the same time, Claude was trying to get a handle on what I was looking for. We met both goals, and at the same time I got a very good sense of why Claude is so damned good at what he does.
As we walked he’d slow down to rub any number of cheeses, first with his hands, then often tapping with the handle of his cheese tryer. “This is still really a mystery,” he reminded us early on. “We don’t know a fraction of what we want to know.” And, I can safely say, the rest of don’t know a fraction of what Claude knows. Many of the wheels we walked by had a series of scratches in them. Why? I asked. We mark each cheese after we taste. And we don’t want to pull from the same cheese too many times.
He’s also something of artist. Every once in a while he stops to scratch a drawing into the rind of a wheel of cheese, sort of cave art of a more modern sort than what Claude’s Gallic ancestors might have been doing a few million years ago. The first was a four axis sketch of the flavors we taste—bitter, salty, sour and sweet at each end of each of the two axes. “I am an architect of flavor,” he explains, using the diagram to show how he must manage the various natural flavors in the cheese to develop them properly.
Perhaps more than anything else, I was blown away by Claude’s palate and his ability to put amazingly precise and often unusual flavor descriptors onto what we were tasting. While the words may seem off the wall, the truth is that the flavors were there in the cheese. I kept looking up at him with amazement but sure enough he was right on in what he was saying. “Buttery, nutty .. . these are typical descriptors. Accurate but not surprising. Claude started in with stuff like “citrus,” “cacao,” “cooked cream,” “grapefruit,” “smoked ham,” “dried fruit,” “hazelnuts,” “peanuts.” Damn the guy is good. But then he really blew me away when he said—totally accurately—that one particularly good cheese had the aroma of “croissants, of fresh patisserie.”
As we move forward tasting young cheeses someone asks if a particular 10-month old cheese is going to mature out to be really great at two years. He shakes his head. I can’t tell if it’s with humor, cynicism, or . .. . Regardless, he scratches another of his diagrams in the rind of the cheese in question. This one shows how some cheeses peak out at 10 or 12 months, while a minority of other wheels go on to mature more meaningfully. Then he adds with a touch of a cynical smile, “If you can predict scientifically where the cheese will be in three years from where it is now, then shut the Fort and I retire.”
The great thing about tasting like this is that there is a good cheese for most every palate and that most every palate likes a different style of cheese. Jason I know likes his Comte softer, gentler, sweeter. These are the kinds of cheeses I think you could eat every day and that’s exactly what he’s doing with the cheese so successfully in London—selling it at the market at a rate and in away that’s fast making it every eating for food lovers in the area. Me, on the other hand, I like my Comté with more guts, more earthiness. We tasted together until we found something I liked. Loved is probably better. My notes, a conglomeration of my own comments and Claude’s, say it was “Big, long, round, a bit of leathery blue Stilton, nuts, walnuts. Butter, hint of butterscotch, but it’s not sweet. This is what I like!” Claude nodded, smiled a small smile, put his fist up to tap his chest and said, “This is a cheese for a montagnard..” I’m not sure, but I think that’s something I like. I know I like the cheese. I know I like good Comte. I hope you do, too.