Learning about Comté cheese

Comté cheese ageingAs part of preparations for the Jura wine book, on our visits to the region earlier this year we were not only eating the local cheeses as we always do, but learning about them too. Of course, we started with the most important cheese, Comté made only in the Franche-Comté region, of which the Jura department is one part.

To watch them make the cheese Brett and I made a visit to a fruitière in Plasne, a village on the Premier Plateau (the first plateau) above the Jura town of Poligny, considered the capital of Comté. Then later we went further up the mountain for an hour to visit the magnificent ageing cellars of the famous cheese merchant Marcel Petite.

A few fast facts:

  • Comté was first documented in the 12th Century
  • Farmers often had only one cow, so the milk was delivered to a fruitière, one of the earliest forms of cooperative
  • Only unpasteurized milk from Montbéliarde and French Simmental cows is allowed
  • There are over 3,000 family farms supplying milk to one of their local fruitières
  • To make each meule (wheel of cheese) weighing 40kg you need 450 litres of milk
  • The fruitière makes cheese every day under the control of a maître fromager (master cheese-maker). Although machines are used it can never be an automated process as it has to be strictly controlled.
  • The region has 15 caves d’affinage (maturing cellars)
  • The cheese must be aged for at least four months and may be aged for 18 months or occasionally longer
  • Comté became AOC in 1958 and then Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) in 1996.
  • Comté accounts for the largest volume of AOP cheese in France.

Saving more details for the book, I’m instead sharing with you some photographs taken by my partner Brett and a few short explanations. Are you hungry yet?

Montbéliarde cows and vines

Many parts of the Jura wine region have scattered vineyards with pastures in-between. In the summer months you sometimes see the distinctive tan and white Montbéliarde cows grazing there. The photo above was taken in Lavigny in the Côtes du Jura just north of Lons-le-Saunier.

Fruitière à Comté

The various fruitières all share this distinctive signpost and most have shops and sometimes visiting facilities too.

Fort St-Antoine

Up at 1100m (3500 feet) in the forest of the Haut-Doubs near the ski resort Métabief is the amazing old military fort Saint Antoine, which today houses Marcel Petite’s cheese ageing facility. The combination of high altitude and caves buried far below the earth allows for ideal ageing conditions. You can take a tour around the fort by appointment.

Comté ageing

The so-called ‘cathedral’ of Comté has a series of galleries stretching along 300m in which the cheese is stacked and aged. At any one time there will be around 100,000 wheels of cheese.

Comté cheese-maker

Machines are used to turn each cheese regularly (see video below). The cheese cellar-master periodically checks each one taking it out and tapping it with a type of hammer, listening to the sound each cheese makes, which indicates whether there are any holes. He may also taste it by inserting a special tool to take a sample. The skills needed are not so different from those a winemaker needs, and indeed Comté ageing is every bit as technical and mysterious as Vin Jaune ageing. Above, photographer Mick Rock captures the cheese cellar-master taking out a cheese to check it.

Comté is not the only important cheese from the Franche-Comté region, there is also Bleu de Gex and Morbier, as well as the seasonal Mont d’Or. We have our work cut out learning and writing about these cheeses. Below are Comté, Morbier (behind) and Bleu de Gex, photographed by Mick Rock of Cephas Picture library, who specializes in wine, food and travel.

Franche-Comté cheeses

The short video below shows the fabulous contraption that turns and washes each cheese. Thank you again to Brett!

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Categories: Franche Comté food, Images of Jura | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Learning about Comté cheese

  1. Excellent report. Now I’m craving Comté with some Savagnin!

  2. Hi Wink!
    Comte was one of the first cheeses I learned all of the regulations, facts about as one of my favorite cheese mentors, Daphne Zephos, was known as the maven of taste when it came to this infamous cheese. She founded Essex Cheese, that at one time was devoted solely to the selection of Comte. I have fond memories of the first time I used the unique flavor wheel created by the AOC to help identify the up to 80 aromas that could be detected (including pineapple!) in her selections. Looking forward to more Jura cheese info!
    Cheers,
    Wendy

    • HI Wendy – I may have seen the cows and the amazing ageing cathedral in the fort, but I suspect you know more about the intricacies of the flavours… Hope you can visit the region one day!
      Best, Wink

  3. Mmm, Comté! As any good cheese nut I’m well versed with this Prince of Gruyères (perhaps just topped by Beaufort?), but what I didn’t know were the amazing stats relating to the ageing cathedral – what a vast and extraordinary sounding place! Thanks for the post.

    • Thanks Hugo. Actually I believe it is indeed Beaufort that is known as the Prince de Gruyère… Actually I find the two quite different and as we learnt on the visit to the ‘cathedral’ so much is about how these cheeses are aged, even more so than how long for.

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