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The Big Cheese: Comté

By Lavender November 20, 2008

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You thought the French were passionate about wine? That’s nothing. To get them really wound up, just mention cheese. “How can I govern a country which makes 600 kinds of cheese?” President De Gaulle was said to moan.

Lunch of comté; Tas the “Cow-Whisperer”; Ornans, typical village in the Comté country; Cheesemaker. Photos Courtesy of Carla Waldemar

Well, to make it easier, just start at the top. The Big Cheese—the most popular, the most revered—is comté. The blessed trinity of dairy herder, cheesemaker, and cheese ager has been producing comté in the mountainous Jura region of France for a thousand years. And as you mingle with French people, you soon learn one thing: They don’t mess around with tradition, or quality.

Comté is made the same way as it always has been—no shortcuts, no additives. In fact, it was the very first product in the land to be regulated by law. (The standard is called the AOC, established in 1958.) So, to make comté, you’ve got to obey the rules—such as, employ milk solely from those pretty brown and white cows called Montbeliarde.

These uberpampered critters lead the good life, all right. All summer long, they munch on a mélange of sweet grass and field flowers. Then, in winter, they dine on aromatic hay grown right where they live and eat—no smelly silage, no hormones.

The milk they produce twice a day can travel no more than 25 kilometers to the closest production dairy, where expert cheesemakers are required to turn it into cheese within 24 hours (yet another rule), adding only rennet (which cows themselves make) to encourage curdling. Each wheel, weighing around 45 kilos, requires 500 liters of that tasty milk.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Cheesemakers wouldn’t do that. They don’t hurry things along. “No wine before its time”—and no cheese, either. Again as in wine, comté-making has become a tourist attraction: Visitors can pursue a cheese trail to get up-close and personal with the object of their amour.

We started at the House of Comté in Poligny, a minimuseum offering an interactive overview—smelling different grasses all the way to tasting an array of comté wheels—a cheese aged eight months versus twelve months, say, or one produced on this slope versus the neighbor one; one from winter hay, another from summer grasses. Again, it’s like wine: One is not “better” than another, simply different—and vive la difference!

As with wine, you’re invited to employ all five of your senses to enjoy the cheese: by smell—like toast? Or fruity, as in apricots? Or honey? Spicier, with hints of vanilla? Nutmeg? And the list goes on. Listen to the crackle of that first bite, feel its creaminess. Eyeball its color (ivory-pale to butter-yellow).

Next, stop by a dairy, as we did in Bouverans, where Jean-Francois Marnier (better known as Tas for the time he spent in Tasmania picking up an Aussie accent and herder’s hat to tame his mop of curls). He’s one of six farmers who delivers milk to this co-op, and, like all the rest, he has been bitten by comté mania. “Every second during the day, we think about our product,” he relates with drama. “It’s an obsession.”

We watch Fefe the cheesemaker test the temp of the milk in the huge vat, dipping his hands in “to feel how the curd behaves,” as it firms up and squeezes out the whey (not wasted—it’s treasured as a hangover cure). The curd is packed into molds—25 wheels a day—for further firming and the start of the aging that turns this pasty white substance into aromatic cheese.

Next, Tas escorts us to where his cattle are pastured. A call from this cow-whisperer, and they all come running to their daddy.

OK, this has been fun, but how about lunch? Turns out Tas knows just the spot, of course. It’s a mountain hut-turned-café at “The End of the World,” where Norbert, a shy, self-taught cook, turns a portion of comté into a divine fondue. We jostle elbows with bread on our forks, then swipe slices of his rosti—a tart made of hashed browns mined with Norbert’s own sausages and handfuls of comté. We’re drinking the homey wines of the Jura, a white called Savignan, and with dessert the region’s special Vin Jaune (“yellow wine”), akin to sherry, which helps his fruit tart go down. Not that it needed assistance.

To work off the feast, we ambled into Switzerland (it’s that close). How does comté taste, by the way? Like Swiss cheese, only a million times better. As the French say. “Oh la la!” And they say it a lot about comté.

Our final stop was at an affineur, or aging cellar—in this case, not a cellar at all, but rather Fort St.-Antoine, built in 1879, moat and all, but abandoned in the wars that followed, and resurrected 40 years ago as an ideal aging facility. “Good ambience, high humidity,” Director Hubert Buvel explains, as he tap-tap-taps a wheel to check its progress. Each young cheese is marked with its source and date, then brushed with salt to help form a rind. In fact, they’re brushed and turned upside-down on a daily basis (thankfully, with the help of a robot these days). “Like apples on a tree, each wheel matures at a different rate,” Buvel remarks. “Let the cheese talk. You don’t tell the cheeses what to do. They are telling us.”

OK: No cheese before its time.

Comté is that rare cheese suitable for every course, from appetizer to dessert. It makes a lovely addition to scalloped potatoes, polenta, or simple mac and cheese, and pairs especially well with fish, pork, and chicken.

Find out for yourself. It’s available at Surdyk’s and Whole Foods. Bisit <www.comté.com> for more info.

Or, better yet, head to comté country, two hours via fast train east of Paris. What else to do in these lush, green hills? Hike, mountain bike, ski in winter, swim in summer—well, in the placid pool at Le Domaine de la Moulin del la Valee Heureuse, at least, a beguiling inn where bubbly hostess Isabelle welcomes her guests with a kiss on both cheeks. Dine chez Isabelle, or in the nearby town of Pupillon at Auberge du Grapiot on its fabled “cuisine du terroir.” Kayak in the river that ripples through the province. Visit a Medieval castle.

Immerse yourself in the landscape Gustave Courbet painted (you’ll find one example in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), and visit his home and museum in Ornans. Book a room at Chateau du Mont Joly in Sampans—ultramodern within its historic walls, as is the superlative menu of affable chef/owner Romuald Fassenet, who boasts a coveted Micheln star. And who can rustle up an all-comté menu, starting with gougers (like cream puffs), asparagus cloaked in comté, nut-crusted lobster served with comté risotto, and a dynamite cheesecake attended by fresh berries. Take a dip in the pool, or stroll the green gardens. Then, have another piece of cheese. Oh la la!

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