Located in north-east France, along the Swiss border, Franche-Comté is made up of four counties; le Doubs, le Jura, la Haute Saône and the Territoire of Belfort. Traversed by the Doubs and Saône rivers, and bordered by the Jura and Vosges mountains, it boasts vineyards and lakes.
Why the geography lesson? Well, it’s here where my favourite cheese is produced.
Manufacture began as early as the 12th century, when shepherds would spend the summer months in their huts in the middle of nowhere. The distance from towns meant that the cheese made would need to mature over a period of months. Milk was shared between shepherds nearby, and at the end of the season they’d be carried to market.
A cheese seller who sold only Comté introduced me to it a few years ago at Borough Market. His cocktail-party-cube-lure, tasted so good, each bite different to the one before, that like a moth to a flame I couldn’t get enough. I seriously thought I knew enough about the cheese but I discovered a whole lot more when I went to a Comté tasting afternoon in a Soho basement recently.
The guests were treated to six Comtés of varying maturity, fresh from the Franche-Comté region, including a 5 month old Trévillers, a 13 month La Ferté, a 15 month Belleherbe, a 16 month La Baroche and a two year old Les Fins Frenelots.
Claire Perrot, a French cheese and wine specialist, shared her expertise with an assembled group of writers.
Made with raw milk, in a completely natural way, with nothing added but salt to help it mature. This was first among cheeses to get a label of origin (AOC).
There are currently 160 fruitieres scattered over a production area of 25kms, making 160 different cheeses each day, the process of which hasn’t changes for centuries. Women no longer work in the fruitieres and the movement of the massive cheese wheels is done by machine but the rest of the process is continued by hand.
The milk is partly skimmed, then poured into a copper vat and the temperature is raised to 32 degrees. Natural leavens are added – processed from the whey – then rennet. After thirty minutes the milk curdles, that’s split into grains, heated to 55 degrees to extract the whey. When the consistency is reached, it’s transferred to a mould that drains the whey and holds back the curd. Once removed from the mould it’s laid out on spruce boards for the affineur (cheese maturer) to take over. There are 15 in the area and each works differently.
Each Comté is unique; the maturing process takes at least 4 months and at the very best 12 or 18 months. The cheese remains on the boards and they’re moved to various cellars – temperate, warm and cold, the affineur responsible for the sequence of each wheel. They’re turned, and rubbed with a cloth soaked in a salted solution, which contains ferments found in the rind of older wheels. This eventually forms the protective rind.
Now that rind protects the paste throughout the maturing period, even its making is recorded within it. Its colour can vary from golden yellow to brown depending on the cellar.
Each cheese tastes very different depending on the age, the food the cows were eating very simply put, because there’s no pasteurization some of the natural micro flora from the milk is passed to the cheese and enhances it.
Young Comté tastes nutty, with vanilla notes and there’s definite caramel there. Whilst a long matured cheese will be far creamier, with a lot of roasted nutty flavours, melted butter and spices will jump out but made softer by creamed citrus fruits.
Because no colourings are added, the season the wheel is produced is visible in the paste. A pale cheese means a winter Comté, made when the cows are stabled and fed hay, producing milk with a low carotene (natural vegetable colour) content. A summer Comté is the very opposite, a more yellow paste means the cows have been free to graze on plants rich in carotene.
There is a real science to smelling this cheese – there’s even an aroma wheel which picks up a well of aromas from within 6 families – lactic; fruity; the roasted empyreumatic; vegetable; animal and spicy. A whopping 83 descriptors correspond to the most frequently found smells and aromas but apparently it’s still possible to detect other smells when smelling a piece of Comté
Next time you see Comté for sale, see if you can age it and determine it’s season.
Comté Top Trumps
Comté has the highest production figures of all the French AOC cheeses (51,000 tons in 2005, or about 1,275,000 rounds every year).
The average maturing period for a round of Comté is eight months. The maturing period ranges from four months (the legal minimum) to twelve, fifteen, eighteen or even twenty-four months.
A round of Comté weighs an average of 40 kg, having a diameter of 60 cm and a thickness (or “heel”) of 10 cm.
450 litres of milk are required to make one 40 kg round.
A Montbéliarde cow produces about 20 litres of milk over two milkings; to make one round of Comté therefore requires twenty-three cows and, since each cow must be given at least one hectare, a minimum of twenty-three hectares (about fifty-seven acres) of pasture.
Comté was granted AOC status (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) in 1958.
Source: CIGC Comté