The eagle-eyed amongst you may be muttering ‘Comté is neither a British nor an Irish cheese’ and you are, of course, correct. When I was invited to an evening to find out more about the French cheese, I flip-flopped as to whether to attend. Eventually, I decided to cross the cheese Channel because a) I’ve got two children and I don’t get out much; b) Comté is a nice cheese; and c) I am interested in different production methods and systems, so thought it would be interesting to head to the mountains that we tend to lack this side of La Manche. Blame it on The Oxford Companion to Cheese; it’s got me sniffing after all manner of furrin cheeses.
The evening began with a presentation from cheese journalist Patrick McGuigan and a Comté producer called Tas. It was an education from the get-go. Comté is a ubiquitous cheese, found in most delis and supermarkets, and so I’d assumed it was churned out industrially. However, whilst it is made on a grand scale – at 60,000 tons per year, it is France’s top AOC cheese – its production is still rooted firmly in the villages and hamlets of the Jura region of eastern France.
Writer Kathe Lison, in her homage to French cheese The Whole Fromage, writes of the Jura mountains as a timeless place of mystery, where cheesemakers were once akin to sorcerers and would-be cheese thieves could be paralysed by mysterious forces. Hocus pocus aside, it is the history and geography of this sub-alpine region that has created a co-operative farming system that still thrives today on more than 2,700 small farms. Centuries ago, families would perhaps own just a handful of cows and so pooled their milk together to make giant wheels (or ‘meules’ – millstones) of cheese that would survive the harsh winters.
Interestingly, this is the same system that once produced cheddar, here on our milder Somerset plains. Farmers grazed their cows on common land and pooled the milk to make cheese. When each farmer had, over the course of days or weeks, contributed enough milk, he would gain a cheese, as Daniel Defoe confirms in 1724:
The milk of all the town cows, is brought together every day into a common room, where the persons appointed, or trusted for the management, measure every man’s quantity, and set it down in a book; when the quantities are adjusted, the milk is all put together, and every meal’s milk makes one cheese, and no more; so that the cheese is bigger, or less, as the cows yield more, or less, milk. By this method, the goodness of the cheese is preserved, and, without all dispute, it is the best cheese that England affords, if not, that the whole world affords.
By the nineteenth century, the co-operative system here was on the wane but, over in France, it persists today. The milk for Comté must come predominantly from the Montbéliarde breed of cow, as well as the French Simmental. Milk is taken to a small dairy known as a ‘fruitière’, which is usually situated in the centre of a village or hamlet. The name derives from the cheese being the ‘fruit’ of the farmers’ labours. Historically, the function of these dairies extended beyond cheesemaking; town notices, postal services and even new-fangled telephones all centred there. There are some 160 fruitières still operating today and many of them are still the centre of village life. Farms must be no more than 16 miles away, so that the milk remains fresh and full of the local microflora.
When the meules have been made, after a few weeks they move to the next part of the process – to one of 16 maturing cellars where the cheeses are cosseted for at least four months and up to three years by affineurs, who make sure that the cheeses are regularly turned and rubbed with a brine solution. Cheeses are tested and ranked using a score system and only those scoring more than 12 points out of 20 are allowed to be sold as Comté. Those that score 15 or above become ‘green label’ Comté Extra, with the remainder being sold as ‘brown label’ Comté.
We tasted a range of cheeses, from a youthful four-month old to a middle-aged 18 month-er. Surprisingly, for a cheese produced on such a scale and exported worldwide, Comté is unpasteurised. There’s no comparative cheese in Britain, with most unpasteurised cheese being produced on a small scale here. Using raw milk means that the cheese changes on a daily basis; this, plus the fact that cheeses are aged for different lengths of time and looked after by different affineurs mean that there’s no single taste profile for Comté. Indeed, this handy wheel shows the range of 83 flavours you might find, from the more obvious ‘fresh butter’ to the perhaps less appealing ‘rancid walnut’:
Britain produces a number of cheeses that use the same production techniques as Alpine cheeses; for instance, Mrs Temple’s Alpine (from the decidedly non-mountainous Norfolk) and Bermondsey Hard-Pressed (from the lofty heights of central London). It would be interesting, though, to carry out a taste test against a cheese that actually hails from the mountains…strictly in the name of research, obviously…
With thanks to Comté cheese, who hosted me for the evening.