From June 19th to June 25th, I traveled around the Jura region of France as a guest of The Comté Cheese Association. It was one of the most impressive food-based trips I've been on, mostly because I'm such a fan of the product, and its method of production was fascinating to me on several fronts. If you're more the sit-back-and-relax type, just watch this short video we threw together above. For a slightly more in-depth look at Comté cheese production, read on.
As the AOC cheese with the single largest production in France with a production of 40,000 annual tonnes, Comté is big player in the field. But if you think an all chees all the time tour of Jura in eastern France is all fun and games, think agin. You try eating Comté five times a day for an entire week. Tiring, to say the least, though delicious nonetheless.
For the record, AOC or Appellation d'Origine Contrölée is the French certification system which ensures that all products marked with a specific government controlled label will have been produced according to strict production guidelines designed to maintain quality and regional character. Other countries have very similar appellation systems.
What was by far the most surprising thing to me was that this cheese, which you can find at nearly every supermarket in the U.S. is produced 100% by small farms. And when I say small, I mean small—as in herds of cows grazing on large fields of grass, chowing down on over 200 species of flora, and living just about the best life you could imagine a cow living.
Production is done in a cooperative style. While in the U.S., most dairy farmers sell their mllk to cheesemakers then wash their hands of it, in Jura, the farmer, fruitière (cheese maker), and affineur (the one who ages the cheese) all work in tandem—indeed, the cheesemaker is directly hired by the dairy farmer—with all three sharing in the profits. The result is that pride and care are taken at every stage of the process, since there's no way to pass the buck. You produced the milk. If the cheese is no good, it's just as much your fault as the man who made the actual cheese or the one who aged it.
Indeed, some cheesemakers will handle the entire process, including the aging, as with the small fruitiére La Ferté, who produce about 290 tonnes of Comté annually.
In the U.S., the use of antibiotics with cattle is more or less black and white. Large scale industrial farms use them far too much in order to promote milk production, while organic farms are not allowed to use them at all, leading to cattle that can't be treated for sicknesses that need to be treated. In the middle are the few small-scale farms that don't have organic certification, but follow pretty much all of the organic guidelines, save for one: they treat their cows with antibiotics when necessary.
This last option, which to my mind is clearly the best, is the one used pretty much everywhere in the region. Cows are allowed antibiotics when they get sick, but on each medication is listed two timeframes. The first is the time at which milk is safe to consume, the second is when the meat will be free from antibiotic residues.
At the fruitière, the milk, which must be delivered within a day after milking, is poured into gigantic copper cauldrons where rennet, an enzyme extracted from the lining of a calf's stomach, is added to make it curdle. The curds are cut with a rotating wire mesh.
While the process of cheesemaking is machine-assisted, the fruitiéres insist that their hands are their most valuable tools, feeling the structure of the curd until it's cut to just the right consistency.
Cooking this curd up to 55°C (131°F) will cause the proteins in the curd to set and tighten a bit, without actually killing any of the valuable bacteria in the mixture.
When properly tightened, the curds should be able to stick together into a coherent mass when you squeeze them.
Finally, the curds get transferred into massive cylindrical metal molds and the whey drains away underneath. This whey is sold to pig farmers who feed it to their pigs, which adds flavor to their meat and eventually gets transformed into the smoked sausages and hams the region is known for.
The coolest part is when the exterior sleeve of the molds get removed and the excess whey pours out through the perforations in the molds in a shower of steamy, chalky white liquid.
The molded curds are weighted and left overnight to set, whereupon the milky white block is placed on shelves made of spruce planks (important for proper moisture loss!) to begin the aging process at the affineur. During this third phase of cheese production, the wheels are kept in carefully maintained environments with high humidity and relatively low temperature for a minimum of four months. Most Comté is sold at 12 to 14 months of aging, though some can be aged for many times longer than that—up to four years.
Anyone who's familiar with the concept of a sourdough starter—that is, saving a bit of old dough to start the fermentation in the next batch—will understand what happens next. Morge, a briny liquid inoculated with bacteria from the outside of a previous batch of cheese, gets rubbed onto the exterior of each wheel on a daily basis as the wheel is flipped and rotated.
A wheel of Comté weights over 100 pounds, and at small affineurs, the rubbing and flipping is still done by hand. You don't see too many scrawny or out-of-shape cheesemakers in the region, though in more modern caves with tens of thousands of wheels, these days, workers are assisted by specially designed cheese-flipping robots.
The robots are pretty awesome. They guide themselves up and down massive corridors, stopping at each row of cheese and flipping and rubbing each one, though I did notice one which had dropped an entire wheel to the floor and froze in place, as if confused at what to do next or afraid its human master might punish it.
Determining the quality of a cheese was one of the most fascinating parts of my visit. I spent a good deal of time at the fruitièrs, the folks in charge of turning the milk into cheese, and that in itself is a pretty awesome spectacle to behold as a large copper vat of milk is alchemically transformed into a solid wheel of curd. The amount of cheese produced from a given amount of milk is a tenfold reduction in weight, and that's even before aging.
It's this aging that really blew my mind. Walking down the cavernous rows of shelves holding literally thousands of wheels of cheese, the main aroma you get is that of ammonia. It's almost stifling. But despite this overpowering scent, the affineur has a job to do.
Every several rows, he'll stop and select a wheel of cheese, seemingly at random (though I'm sure there is some secret order to his method), pull it off of the shelf halfway, then begin tapping at it with a sonde—a tiny hammer with a sharp, hollow straw on the other end. As he taps around the surface of the cheese, you can hear faint differences in the reverberation. Though lost on my ears, to the trained ears of the affineur, they tell him exactly the state of the cheese inside—whether it's developing a smooth paste or if it's cracking. Whether it's fermenting too fast and forming gas bubbles.
The other end of the sonde is used to extract a core sample from the cheese, which the affineur sniffs entirely along its length, telling him exactly how far along in the aging process the cheese has come.
A Gruyère-style cheese, Comté has a very fine, smooth texture and is medium-hard with a buttery, creamy, nutty, and sharp flavor. As it ages, it can develop sharper, more pungent notes, as well as display tiny crunchy pockets of crystallized amino acids, just like a good parmesan or Pecorino. Don't confuse these crystals with salt!
Depending on its age, Comté has a widely diverse set of uses. Young comtés in the 1-year range still have enough moisture to make them great for melting and cooking with. Dishes like fondue, tartiflette (essentially a mac and cheese made with potatoes instead of pasta), or even a good old grilled cheese on nice bread will benefit from its nuttiness. Older cheeses, with their greater complexity, dryer texture, and sharper flavor, are more suited to things like cheese boards, or perhaps as an accompaniment to a salad or sandwich. I can't think of a much better way to finish a meal than with a little wedge of 24-month old Comté and a glass of Vin Jaune, the sherry-like oxidized wines of the region.
Just like with wine, pizza, sandwiches, chocolate—almost any traditional food—there's no strict "good" or "bad" when it comes to Comté. Older, sharper cheeses are not necessarily better than younger milder cheeses. Indeed, part of the job of the affineur—the one in charge of aging the cheeses in a cellar—is to determine exactly when a given cheese is at its best. Not all young cheese will develop into good older cheeses. I talked to a couple affineurs about this, and they both likened cheese to fruit. "It's ripe when it is ripe, and you must eat it then. Not all cheeses can be aged to three years—some were born to be eaten young."
Though the general "young for cooking, old for eating" adage is true, during this trip I actually learned to appreciate younger cheeses for their own merits. After several tastings a day, I almost reveled in their relative mildness, just as I would had it been included as part of a well-balanced cheese plate to form an easier-eating background to other sharper cheeses.
Shopping for Comté
When shopping for Comté, there are a couple things to look for. First off, the label. All comté is wrapped with either a green or brown paper label (the ribbon like label wrapping around its perimeter). These labels are indicators of quality, as judged by a panel of inspectors. The best cheese—those that score 15 out of 20 or above for appearance, rind quality, internal structure, texture, and flavor—will have green labels, while cheeses with more more problems—such as cracks or holes in their internal structure—will receive the brown. This is not to say that a brown-labeled cheese can't be delicious! Just be aware that it might not be cosmetically perfect.
Secondly, there's the date. All comté should be sold labeled with its date of production, and you should purchase your cheese according to what you plan to use it for. Going for a fondue? Then pick a younger cheese. Want something sharper for your cheese plate? Then pick one greater than 14 months of age. But what if you are buying your cheese from, say, a supermarket, which doesn't label the exact production date?
That's where color comes in. During the summer months when cows have plenty of wild grasses and flowers to eat, their diets are high in beta-carotene, a red pigment that lends a yellowish hue to their milk. In the winter, when cows are living off of hay, their milk is much whiter. This translates to a distinct difference in winter and summer cheeses. Since all cheeses are aged for at least several months, the color can be a good indicator of when it was produced.
For instance, say it's January and you see a yellow comté and a white comté on the supermarket shelf. Chances are, the yellow comté came from the previous summer, making it around 8 months old or so, while the white comté probably came from the previous winter, making it at least a year old. It's very unlikely that a store selling unlabeled, pre-wrapped Comté is carrying anything older than that.
In France, many cheese sellers double as affineurs as well, adding some post-cave aging to the cheeses they purchase in their own private caves, holding cheeses for customers whom they know to prefer even older Comtés. At the cheese seller Robert Janin in Champagnole, four different ages of Comté were displayed on the day of my visit, with several others—some as old as four years!—in his basement cave.
It's a truly impressive product, with an equally impressive system of production in place behind it. I've heard that cheesemakers in Vermont are on the cusp of developing a similar sort of appellation and cooperative system for Vermont cheeses, bringing the dairy farmers, cheese makers, and agers together into one collaborative. Hopefully their efforts will be as inspiring as that of Comté.