One of the earliest and most widely produced AOC cheese in France, Comté is still made in the traditional manner with raw cow's milk produced from small family owned farms aged for a minimum of four months. It's had AOC designation since 1958. The production is in the form of a cooperative, with milk producers, cheese makers, and affineurs (cheese agers) sharing in the profits. There are tight controls placed on every step of the process from the level of production down to the breed and space requirements for each cow.
Comté is a gruyere-style cheese with a dense, dry, but slightly flexible paste and a strong nutty, sweet aroma.
Where Comté Starts
Good cheese starts with good milk. Good milk comes from cows with plenty of space and a wide variety of wild grasses, herbs, and flowers to dine on. In the Jura, there are well over 100 species of wild plants that the ruminants graze on.
The pretty-eyed brown and white pied Montbéliarde cattle are used for the production of Comté, Morbier, Blue de Gex, and other dairy uses. Their high-protein milk is particularly suitable for cheese-making, and they lead a pampered, well-fed life (the ones we visited even have a built-in mechanical massage parlor in their milking barn).
A relatively young comté made in the summer. You can tell by the deep orange flesh of the cheese, an artifact of the carotene pigments in the flowers that the cattle graze on during the hotter months.
Juraflore at Les Rousses, one of the larger affineurs of Comté. The affineur's job is to take the finished wheels of cheese from the cheese maker and age them in a temperature and humidity controlled environment, flipping the wheels, washing them, and inoculating their surface with bacteria to help develop their unique flavor. This affineur ages over 80,000 wheels of cheese, each one weighing 110 pounds at this facility.
Comté and Lardon Tartine
One of the simplest uses for two of the regional products of Jura, great bread (there was remarkable bread at every single meal) topped with Comté and nubs of smoked pork belly. Kinda like the broiled-Kraft-Single-and-bologna-on-Wonderbread-toast my mother used to make for me as a kid. Kind of.
A traditional preparation originally from Savoie, it's a mixture of scalloped potatoes, Comté, cream, and pork belly lardons baked until crusty and gooey. Like mac and cheese with bacon, using potatoes in place of the pasta. I could get behind this.
All of the charcuterie in the region—both cured and cooked—are smoked, a method that was once necessary for preservation during the snowy winter months. Here are a couple of the more common, including a smoked pork salami-style sausage, and a smoked jambon cru—a raw, thin-sliced ham.
Belle de Morteau
Morteau sausages are produced in the Doubs department of Franche-Comté and are cold-smoked in the brisk mountain air for 48 hours over a fire of juniper and fir tree sawdust. Sold raw, they are generally simmered before slicing and serving or being used in other preparations.
Morteau Sausage aux Lentilles
Simmered and sliced Morteau sausage served over tender lentils. I could eat a lot of sausage and lentils, given the opportunity.
My wife and I were given a fondue set for our wedding. It's been used exactly once. This trip has inspired me to pull it out again. Made with grated Comté, garlic, a few glugs of the local wine made with Chardonnay and Savignin grapes, along with a few drops of fiery marc, this version from restaurant La Finette in Arbois is about as good as it gets.
Cancoillote is France's answer to Velveeta, and I've gotta say: they win. A process cheese, it's made by combining dehydrated cheese curds with cream, butter, and additional flavorings. This one, from Le Bistrot de Pontarlier in Port Lesney is flavored with Vin Jaune, the oxidized yellow wine from the region. It can be served hot or cold, but either way, it's gooey and delicious. You can expect a recipe later this week.
The region is landlocked, but there are plenty of rivers and streams with great trout fishing. Here it's served simply with cauliflower, capers, and cornichon, the tiny, salty gherkins that go so well with rich fish and charcuterie.
Young Savagnin Grapes
One of the three grape varietals that are found only in Jura (the other two are Trousseau and Plousard), savagnin grapes are used to produce both the local wine, as well as their famous Vin Jaune.
Barrels for aging Savagnin at a winery in Jura. Bottles labeled ouillé are made without exposure to oxygen and will have a much more traditional wine flavor, while others will pick up some of the yeasty, sherry-like aromas of Vin Jaune.
Golden, quite acidic, with a characteristic funk, oxidized savagnin goes particularly well with the cheeses of the region—Comté, Morbier, and Blue de Gex.
Absinthe de Guy
Ok, so I've already said that I prefer Pernod to absinthe, but if someone else is gonna be doing the washing up, I'm perfectly happy to enjoy a glass of absinthe, complete with all its paraphernalia.
Absinthe Guy is produced in Pontarlier, a city in Franche-Comté that houses the second oldest absinthe distillery in the world. When in Rome, right? Here, water is being slowly dripped over a sugar cube into a glass of absinthe before drinking. It's a remarkably civilized ritual for a drink so famous for its uncivilized effects on people.
Ice Cream with Griottines
Griottines, morello cherries preserved in kirsch, are powerfully alcoholic with a sweet and heady aroma. The local ones are made with marc de Jura, a spirit made by distilling the material left in the press after the grapes have been juiced. This bowl here put me straight to sleep.
Bonjour Les Vaches!
Naturally friendly and inquisitive, Montbeliarde cows greet you at every turn in the road throughout the Jura mountains.