Comté…The Ultimate Cheese?
Everyone has their favourite fromage, which means not everyone will agree with me on this. But given its unique history and production methods, Comté, for me, is the ultimate cheese. And even if it’s not your favourite cheese to eat, there’s no denying it’s magnificence.
This ancient cheese has been made in small village-based co-operative dairies, or 'fruitières' for over 10 centuries. The production of every Comté wheel involves a special chain of different people: interdependent farmers, who raise the cows; the cheese makers and finally the extraordinary affineurs, who age the Comté. Together they maintain a traditional model of production, by preserving the spirit of the Comté chain, which is based on lifelong exchanges, respect and trust.
What is Comté?
Comté is a hard alpine-style cheese, made from unpasteurised cow’s milk in the Franche-Comté region of Eastern France. It is always made using the milk from Montbéliarde cattle or French Simmental cows (or a cross-breed of the two). As they roam the meadows of the Jura Massif, these lucky cows feast on more that 130 different flowers, herbs and grasses. This incredibly diet contributes to the diversity and complexity of Comté’s aroma and taste.
It’s a stipulation that there can be no more than 1.3 cows per hectare of pasture and the milk must come from a farm within a 15 mile radius of the fruitières.
Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC):
Due to its cultural value and economic importance, the manufacture of Comté has been controlled by AOC regulations since it received it’s AOC status in 1958. In order to call their cheese Comté, the producers must adhere to the following rules:
- Only milk from Montbéliarde or French Simmental cows (or cross breeds of the two) is permitted.
- There must be no more than 1.3 cows per hectare of pasture.
- Fertilization of the pastures is limited, and cows may only be fed fresh, natural feed, with no silage. During the winter the cows must be fed on a diet of hay cut from the summer meadows.
- The milk must be transported to the site of cheese production immediately after milking.
- Renneting must be carried out within a stipulated time after milking, according to the storage temperature of the milk.
- The milk used must be raw (unpasteurised). Only one heating of the milk may occur, and that must be during the renneting stage. The milk may be heated up to 56C / 133F.
- Salt may only be applied directly to the surface of the cheese.
- A casein label containing the date of production must be attached to the side of the cheese, and maturing must continue for at least four months.
In 2005 the French Government registered 175 producers and 188 affineurs (agers) in France.
Comté has the highest production of all French AOC cheeses, at around 64,000 tonnes every year.
(Source: Wikipedia (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/comté_cheese)
How is Comté made?
Each fruitière has approximately 19 farms that supply it with milk. Once at the dairy, the fresh milk is poured into big copper vats, where it is gently warmed. Unbelievably, it takes about 600 litres of milk to make every 50kg wheel of Comté. This is the daily yield from approximately 34 cows! Rennet is then added to the milk, which causes it to coagulate, forming curds and whey. The curds are cut up into tiny pieces, the size of rice grains. These are stirred before being heated again for around 30 minutes. The curds are then poured into moulds and the liquid whey is pressed out. The moulds are left for several hours, before being opened and left to mature in cellars at the dairy.
The Comté from each fruitière has its own distinct taste profile that reflects the soil, climate and flora where the cows graze. These profiles can range from notes of melted butter, milk chocolate, hazelnuts and fudge, to aromas of toast, plum jam, leather, pepper and dark chocolate. Others are more reminiscent of butterscotch and hazelnuts and even sweet oranges.
The young cheese wheels are then transferred to special caves, where they are matured to perfection over a period of between 4 and 24 months. During this time the wheels are watched over by specialist ‘affineurs’ who coax the very best out of the cheese. They regularly turn, clean and brush the cheeses. They also rub the outside of the cheeses with salted water.
When the affinage process is complete, each cheese is tested and graded by the affineur. The wheels are each given a mark out of 20, based on the following scoring system:
- Overall Appearance - up 1 point
- Quality of Rind – up to 1.5 points
- Internal Appearance – up to 3.5 points
- Texture – up to 5 points
- Taste – up to 9 points
Those cheeses scoring 14 points or more are classified as ‘Comté Extra’ and a green label is applied to the outer edge of the cheese, featuring the recognizable logo of a green bell.
Those cheeses scoring 12-14 points are given a brown label and are simply called Comté.
Any cheese scoring 1-2 points (out of a possible 9) for taste, or less than a total of 12 points is not allowed to be called AOC Comté and is sold for other purposes.
One of the finest Comté is produced by Marcel Petite in the cellars of the Fort Saint Antoine. Petite realised that his Comté should be aged in their natural environment, near to the mountain dairies where they were made. Today over 100,000 wheels are ripened for 10-20 months, in the Cathedral of Marcel Petite Comté.
How should a good Comté Taste?
A wheel of Comté measures between 40 and 70cm is diameter and is around 10cm in height. Each disc weighs around 50kg.
The rind is usually a dusty brown colour and the internal paste (pâte), is a pale creamy yellow. It’s texture is quite hard, flexible and a little rubbery. The taste is mild and slightly sweet. According to www.cheese.com, there are practically 83 flavours, which can be savoured while tasting Comté. But the main aromatic flavours that delicately linger on the palate are a balance of brown-butter and roasted-nut aromas and a sweet finish.
The exact taste of the cheese varies from season to season and also the length of the ageing process. The flavour of a Comté that has been aged for 18 or 24 months has a stronger, deeper and is more concentrated; its flavour is fuller and it leaves a bigger impression. But a longer ageing process, doesn’t always mean a better cheese. The best Comté is produced in the summer months, when the cows are grazing on the open pastures. So always consider the time of year when cheese was made when you are making your selection. For example, of you are buying Comté at Christmas, you may prefer a cheese that has been aged for 18 months, rather than 24 months, since the former will have been made from summer grazing milk…just something to consider!
Cheese & Wine Pairing
Comté is one of the few cheeses which works well with both red and white wine. Jura wines make a great pairing for Comté, as well as Châteauneuf du Pape (red or white), wines from the Loire Valley, burgundies, and red Bordeaux. It even goes well with champagne or an off-dry Amontillado sherry from Spain.
If you like the sound of Comté, you can find it in our European Gift Collection.