Did you know that comté cheese is the French’s favourite PDO cheese (PDO = protected designation of origin)? And that it was the first French cheese to be protected by origin in 1958?
This classic cheese was of course also on our agenda when I visited the French Alps and the Jura Mountains with Cheese Journeys. We visited both a dairy and an affineur who ripens the cheese. In this blog post I will take you with me back to the Jura.
A historical structure
Around 1.7 million wheels of comté cheese are produced every year, each weighing around 40 kg / 88 lbs. Each cheese requires 450 litres / 119 US gallons of milk. Since one cow gives about 20 litres / 5.3 gallons of milk a day, 23 cows are needed to make one cheese. In addition, the PDO requires each cow to have one hectare of pasture. This requires large areas of land, which was also the case 1,000 years ago up in the mountains. But with relatively few cows per farmer, it was more practical to join forces when it came to cheese making, hence the birth of cheese cooperatives (‘les frutières’). Today, cooperatives are still responsible for making the cheese, while the maturing process is taken care of by the specialists, ‘les affineurs’.
Let’s start at the beginning, with the cows.
150,000 cows give milk for comté. 95% are Montbeliarde cows, the remaining 5% are French Simmental. The cows eat only grass and hay. In winter (December to April) the menu is locally produced hay, while the cows graze through fresh grass outdoors the rest of the year.
Comté is a raw milk cheese, which also means that the subtle notes in the milk from grass and hay are more apparent. Cheeses made from winter milk have a lighter yellow color than summer cheeses, where the natural coloring of the grass gives a darker yellow hue.
Drought affects the seasons
As elsewhere in southern Europe, 2022 has been marked by drought. This meant, among other things, that hay feeding began earlier in the fall than usual. And that cows began to eat fresh grass earlier, which meant that summer milk was already available halfway through April.
At the dairy
Today, there are about 140 cheese cooperatives left. In French it’s called a ‘fruitière’. The term comes from the French word ‘fructerie’ and refers to the fertility of pooling milk to produce large quantities of cheese. As well as being a practical and necessary gathering place for milk in the old days, ‘le fruitière’ was also a social gathering place for farmers.
This is why it is still an AOP requirement today that milk comes from several farms. The milk cannot be transported more than 25 km / 15 miles to preserve its quality, and the cheese must be made within 24 hours of milking.
Each dairy produces between 7 and 120 cheeses a day. After 10 days, cheeses are taken to an affineur, who ripens the cheese further. The dairy can easily work with several different affineurs, and in this way the same dairy’s cheeses can end up having many different personalities.
Today there are 16 affineurs or maturing cellars, where the potential behind each comté wheel is revealed. A comté must mature for a minimum of four months, the average is 18, and some can mature for as long as 36 months.
The role of the affineur is to bridge the gap between the producer and the customer. With knowledge of the cows, the area and the dairy, each wheel of cheese is brought to perfection for the customer who buys it. After all, there is a difference between the cheese being sold at a local French cheese shop and the cheese ending up on the counter in California.
In the Jura mountains, the affineurs like to use maturing cellars which naturally create good conditions for the cheeses, such as an old railway tunnel or an abandoned military fort.
I visited Marcel Petite at Fort Saint Antoine.
Inside the military fort
In the heart of the Jura Mountains (1,100 m / 3.600 feet above sea level) and close to the dairies, we find Fort Saint Antoine, built in 1879-1882. It was only in use for five years before the 420 soldiers left.
Marcel Petite started as a cheese maker in 1932, and in 1966 he came across the military fort. He saw that the thick stone walls and an insulating layer of earth on top would provide the perfect conditions for a slower ripening of the cheeses than was used at the time.
Under the fort is a water reservoir filled with rainwater and melted snow, providing the soldiers with their own water supply. This keeps the humidity in the fort high. A tunnel to the nearby forest provides natural ventilation. All of this gives optimal conditions for the unique and natural bacteria that are right here and that characterize the cheeses which mature in the fort today.
At the centre of the fort is an octagonal ‘cathedral’. Here lie as many as 100,000 wheels of cheese in the age between 2 and 36 months. An impressive sight!
Back in the days, comté cheeses were aged at 16-18°C / 60-64°F, which allowed them to ripen quickly and reach the market faster. However, this method of ageing also meant that the delicate nuances and subtle hints of sweetness of the milk were not expressed at all. And maybe most remarkably, the cheese had holes (almost like an Emmental). Just look at the old advertisement below.
The microclimate of Fort Saint Antoine ripened the cheeses more slowly with the lower temperature (8-9°C / 46-48°F) and higher humidity (95%). This gave the cheese a completely different flavor profile. This slow maturing changed comté cheese forever, as the other affineurs soon began to do the same.
Knocks on every cheese
In the maturing process, an important step for the cheese master is to ‘ring the wheel’ or hit it several times with a small hammer to make an overall scan of the cheese inside and to detect a possible large crack or hole.
Age matters the least
Then a sample is taken out with a so-called ‘cheese iron’. The interior of the cheese is assessed for appearance, taste, texture and smell. Age is also important but not decisive and always comes after the organoleptic assessment. Only when the cheese has developed the desired personality, it will be sent to the market.
In a Marcel Petite Comté catalogue, the age of the cheeses were not mentioned at all. Instead, they were described only on the basis of their other characteristics.
Ageing develops the flavor
As with other aged cheeses, each wheel of cheese tells us a story about the past: About the pastures where the cows grazed, about the season, about the cheese-maker’s skills and about the cheese cellar where the cheese has been aged.
In fact, 83 flavor markers have been identified for comté and they can be divided into six groups: Lactic, fruity, toasted, vegetable, animal and spicy. Some cheeses may have all the flavours, but most have a few which dominate.
The flavor wheel helps to find the right words to describe the flavor. Use it the next time you have a comté in front of you.
At the dairy, they sold their own cheeses matured by three different affineurs. You can then choose the comté you like best for the situation!